The mood in Tunisia was tense after Ramadan, a month after 38 tourists were killed in the beach resort of Sousse at the end of June. Key buildings on the capital’s main boulevard, Habib Bourguiba Avenue, including the Ministry of Interior, were surrounded with barbed wire and conspicuous police protection. Parliament had just passed a counter-terrorism law criticized by local and international human rights associations for granting extraordinary powers to security agencies.

It is still possible to glimpse the euphoria of the 2011 revolt that toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Bourguiba Avenue and other locales bustle with activity—demonstrations and political meetings at which Tunisians mingle with Libyans and other foreigners. Yet there are dark clouds on the horizon.

There are undoubted signs of improvement in formal political life: two parliamentary elections, in 2011 and 2014; a new constitution with nearly full support from an otherwise divided constituent assembly; the election of a new president in December 2014; a law allowing, at least until passage of the counter-terrorism law, almost total freedom of association; and soon, for the first time in Tunisian history, the creation of a constitutional court meant to give credence to the notion of separation of powers. Tunisia is governed by an alliance between a large secularist coalition, Nida’ Tunis, and the Islamist party Ennahda. The former won the election in October 2014 (with 37 percent of the popular vote), but did not have enough seats to govern on its own. While some see the resulting coalition as a guarantee that radical wings on both sides will neutralize each other, thus avoiding a return to a one-party system, one astute commentator described it as a “rotten compromise.” [1] It has, among other problems, widened the generation gap between political leaders and youths who feel further alienated from politics by the seemingly unnatural alliance. This sentiment is strong, for instance, among young Islamist militants active in newly founded charitable associations. [2]

Tunisian youths were hailed as heroes for their creative, front-row engagement in the 2011 uprising. But they are paying a heavy price amidst the political volatility and economic gloom in the aftermath. It can be misleading to think of youths as a given age group, though the range 18-34 is frequently used. Youths are better conceived as all those who are semi-autonomous, that is, striving for economic and social independence but still closely tied to family elders. [3] Understanding youths as a group with a tormented relationship with authority figures helps to make sense of headlines that Tunisia has supplied the largest number of volunteers to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. It is estimated that 3,000 persons left Tunisia in 2014 to join ISIS.

The economy has been ailing since the latter years of Ben Ali’s rule, and remains very much dependent on European economic performance. The new wave of politicians has struggled to clean up corruption and alleviate high unemployment.

And there is what seems to be the mounting storm of ISIS. The jihadi extremists have established a firm footing in neighboring Libya, first in the east, near Derna, and, over the summer, not far from the capital, Tripoli. As elsewhere, the ISIS militants thrive in a place with no functioning state and a gray economy. The smuggling routes between Libya and Tunisia carry everything from sub-Saharan African or Middle Eastern refugees heading toward Italy to weapons, drugs and such mundane goods as gas and powdered milk. [4]

How the threads interweave is evident in the story of the 23-year old Tunisian man who carried out the killings in Sousse, and apparently, was trained in Libya. Many have interpreted the attacks, claimed by ISIS, as an attempt to reverse Tunisia’s democratic steps forward. The Tunisian government hastened not only to pass the counter-terrorism law, but also to renew the state of emergency and build a sand wall along the Libyan border. Such barriers have been ineffective in the past and, in this case, Tunisians living on the border perceived the measures as interference from the capital in the regular trade on which they rely.

Support among Tunisians for salafi groups (whether quietist or jihadi, like ISIS) has clear domestic and material roots. A sociological study led by Olfa Lamloum and Mohamed Ali Ben Zina in Douar Hicher and Ettadhamen, two neighborhoods with high youth unemployment and reputations as hotbeds of salafi militancy, offers a particularly grim picture of what faces poor Tunisians aged 18 to 34.

Education is abysmal and jobs are scarce. Ninety-three percent of the people interviewed for the Lamloum and Ben Zina study are forced to live with their parents because they cannot provide for themselves. Nearly 54 percent of young men (as opposed to 34 percent of young women) had to drop out of school to help the household financially. Young men feel especially constrained by, and resentful of, this obligation. Forty-four percent of interviewees said that daily life has not improved since the fall of Ben Ali, and 46 percent even think that their condition has been degraded.

The youths from these two neighborhoods complained of having no clubs, cultural centers or parks in which to gather. [5] The few public spaces are often mosques, and it is no surprise that they are so popular (53 percent of the youths interviewed pray regularly). When venturing outside their neighborhoods, young men not infrequently encounter violence: 30 percent said they had suffered physical abuse, mostly from police, but also from people from other neighborhoods.

Around the capital, there is a profound stigma attached to residents of the poor neighborhoods. Teachers discriminate against children from these locations, jeopardizing their chances to complete basic schooling; police routinely target the buses and trams coming from these areas as security risks. All of this mistreatment reinforces feelings of exclusion. Borrowing from Loïc Wacquant, Lamloum and Ben Zina note that the youth of these neighborhoods have been “symbolically disqualified.” [6] Each of the problems identified in the study is gendered, with young men much more exposed to police harassment, petty humiliation at school and professional dead ends than young women.

These youths have no faith in the economic or political system—98 percent distrust political parties and think that politicians fight merely to advance their own interests, starting with getting rich. Ennahda lost big in these neighborhoods between the 2011 and 2014 parliamentary elections, with its rate of support falling from 50 percent in Ettadhamen and 53 percent in Douar Hicher to 35 and 30 percent, respectively. [7] For the youths here, the present alliance between Nida’ Tunis and Ennahda is not a puzzle, but confirmation of preexisting beliefs. It is hardly surprising therefore that youths in these neighborhoods tend to support political groups that are outside the parliamentary order, such as the salafi Ansar al-Shari‘a, a party that has been outlawed. A majority of the youths interviewed for the book said they knew someone who had left, either for Syria to join ISIS or to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. They departed in search of economic opportunity or reassertion of their frustrated masculinity, perhaps through violent means, a path encouraged by ISIS recruiters, with their promise of otherworldly redemption.

The flip side of this coin is a problem for Tunisian politics—not just for the big parties or the government, but for civil associations as well. The constitutional court and the new laws may well anchor future democratic practices in Tunisia, but many lament the fact that so little has been done to improve the economy. Regardless of what the compromise between Nida’ Tunis and Ennahda holds in store, according to Lamloum and Ben Zina’s study, many youths are simply voting with their feet.


[1] Nadia Marzouki, “Tunisia’s Rotten Compromise,” Middle East Report Online, July 10, 2015.
[2] Author’s interviews with three activists, Tunis, July 23-25, 2015.
[3] See the introduction to Linda Herrera and Asef Bayat, eds., Being Young and Muslim: New Cultural Politics in the Global South and North (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 3-24.
[4] International Crisis Group, Tunisia’s Borders: Jihadism and Contraband (Tunis/Brussels, November 2013).
[5] Olfa Lamloum and Mohamed Ben Zina, Jeunes de Douar Hicher et d’Ettadhamen: Un Enquete Sociologique (Tunis: Arabesques/International Alert, 2015), p. 38.
[6] Ibid., p. 11.
[7] Ibid., p. 183.

How to cite this article:

Benoît Challand "The Invisible Alienation of Tunisian Youth," Middle East Report 276 (Fall 2015).

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