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For so long, celebrating Tunisia usually went hand in hand with celebrating its youth. “Tunisian youth were rather the solution and not the problem” this was the slogan communicated throughout the Ben Ali tenure. The ousted president made youth-leveraging as his personal brand.
Over twenty years of branding and marketing to hide the ugly truth laying beneath a colorful festive surface, Tunisian youth were more like chess pawns moved for the benefit of the king. Not only did they have no real value, they also lacked so many basic human rights. But however covered up the truth about the situation of Tunisian youth was, it was bound to be revealed. In late 2010 a young man, Mohamed El-Bouazizi, immolated himself to protest police power abuse. He later died due to his injuries and his death sparked what the world now knows as the “Arab Spring”.
The so called “Arab Spring” regenerated hope that Tunisian youth will finally be put forward and frankly such high hope was understandable, after all, the youth were the reason the “revolution” happened, they have carried it out and paid dearly for it. For few months after January 2011 people generally, not only the youth, showed enthusiasm, optimism and high sense of patriotism. They truly believed they were about to witness change…quickly.
5 years later, were the hopes ever met?
Once the thrill of the revolution withered away, young Tunisians started experiencing a very different feeling, they started losing hope and sliding gradually into despair.
According to Breaking the Barriers to Youth Inclusion, an in-depth study conducted in 2014 focusing on Tunisian youth by the World Bank and the Center for Mediterranean Integration (CMI), “Tunisia currently has one of the highest Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET) rates in the Middle East and North Africa Region”, European Training Foundation data for 2012 shows that 25% of youth between 15 and 24 years old are NEET. This is key to understanding Tunisian youth continuous dissatisfaction with the political system since 2011. Tunisian youth expected the revolution to finally change the dire regional disparities between the capital and coastal regions and the interior and southern region, create job opportunities for young graduates and ensure employment selection was fair and equal among all job seekers.
Being a NEET is even harder when living in a rural area.
According to the World Bank statistics for the year 2012 the ratio of youth NEET in Tunisian rural areas is 33.4% for males and 50.4% for females whereas only 20.3% of males and 32.4% of females are NEET in urban areas. What makes the situation even more outraging is that the easiest, most reliable way to get out of NEET status is relationships and nepotism, which make-up 53.6% of the main reasons for finding work opportunities in rural areas and 62.6% in the urban parts of the country. Obviously if you live in the city your chances of developing those relationships are much higher.
The frustration over the lack of jobs in rural areas escalated over the years.
Tunisian youth who demanded “job, freedom and social justice” and so far they have received none of these. Over the last 5 years staged numerous protests and manifestations demanding yet again, jobs and social justice. The fact that the several different governments that were at the head of the state since 2011 have done very little to help improve the situation of youth led to the loss of confidence in the government’s intent to ever concentrate on youth issues.
The declining youth participation in the political life is maybe one the hardest evidences that trust is being lost between the young generation and political establishment in Tunisia.
Youth turnout for the 2011 election might have been high, understandably, as this election was the product of “revolutionary” enthusiasm. Patriotic feelings at that moment were high and there was plenty of room for optimism. It took only three years of political instability, shaky governance, lack of jobs and an increasingly chaotic security situation for those feelings to vanish.
In its final report, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) described youth turnout for the 2014 legislative and presidential elections in Tunisia as “visibly weak”.
Youth inclusion remained a mere campaign slogan used by political parties’ election campaigns. The percentage of youth head of lists during those elections was almost nonexistent. Out of 216 members of parliament only 28 are 35 years-old or under. In internal party politics higher-up positions are almost always given to senior members, the younger generation is used to fortify the base or at best given second row position.
Tunisian youth make up over 28% of the total population yet, the government still pays so little attention to their needs. Tunisia’s factsheet by Youthpolicy.org states that although the country has always had a specific governmental body tasked with youth development, there is yet to be a national strategy regarding the matter. Solutions for pressing issues such as the lack of employment and education reform were much awaited after the revolution but after suffering political assassinations and terrorist attacks, the government focused on prioritizing security leaving the hopes of the youth to improve their lives unfulfilled.
The realization that youth in Tunisia are neither well represented in the political system nor given priority in economic development, makes it slightly more comprehensible when they start looking for alternative in illegal immigration and are desperate enough to even opt for joining ISIS.