Turning west off Tunisia’s coastal highway to the country’s interior, you can see the change immediately. Four relatively well-paved lanes narrow to two, concrete road barriers disappear, and vehicles slow to handle the rougher road.
Three years after Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire outside the government headquarters in the Sidi Bouzid governorate, residents say regional inequality, an often under discussed cause of social unrest, continues. Sidi Bouzid, Bouazizi’s hometown, is 260 kilometers southwest of Tunis.
“According to the capital, we’re nothing,” said Oussama, a Sidi Bouzid resident who didn’t want his full name mentioned.
Since nationwide protests ousted former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s economy and political transition have struggled. Inflation hovers around 6 percent and unemployment sits at 17 percent nationwide. With the announcement of Mehdi Jomaa as prime minister-designate, Tunisia is facing its fifth post-Ben Ali government.
“There is a political, social, cultural, and security crisis,” said Lazhar Gharbi, of the Sidi Bouzid UGTT labor union office. Ministers of both interior and defense have recently mentioned threats of attacks at the end of this month.
The challenges facing Tunisia are exasperated in the interior, where unemployment and illiteracy rates are double the national average. The imbalance is nothing new. French colonialists built up the coastal or Sahel region, constructing ports, railways and highways. Under both Ben Ali and Tunisia’s first president Habib Bourguiba, who was from the coastal town of Monastir, the government invested in the shoreline, further developing the tourism and manufacturing industry.
In 2011, an African Development Bank report stated that 65 percent of public spending went to the coast.
Now, driving the interior the roads will take you through small towns where dozens of men sit on the side of the road in cafes or simply on the curb. They smoke and talk, but mostly wait.
“All of us are unemployed,” Oussama said, motioning to his six friends who agreed to talk to Tunisia Live in Sidi Bouzid on the condition their full names not be mentioned.
Each estimated that eight out of ten of their friends were jobless and had been for at least three years. All seven have college degrees and were between 20 and 30 years old. Some had studied IT, others pharmaceuticals, and one journalism. They described the central government’s treatment of interior regions as “marginalization.” On a social level, they said people from the coast belittle or humiliate their fellow citizens from the interior.
“We’re less than zero to them,” Amin said.
Unequal treatment was visible, they said, in not only unemployment rates by basic government services. Trash collection is a problem, they added, as is internet and mobile access.
All agreed that certain essential medical services are unavailable in Sidi Bouzid, saying that they have to travel to Sfax, 140 kilometers away, for treatment.
“Ask a doctor if you want to know the [living] situation here,” Amin said.
A 2011 World Bank report noted that interior regions often have half as many medical facilities as the coast and usually no resources for serious emergency cases.
Amin, one of the group, said that social tension have risen since the revolution. A year ago, a group of what is believed to be radical Islamists raided a hotel in Sidi Bouzid for serving alcohol. Now, no alcohol is served in the city, the group said. Further, security forces have stepped up operations against suspected Islamist militants in the area.
“You pray, you go to prison, you drink, you go to prison,” Amin said.
All seven said they had taken part in protests in December 2010 and January 2011, culminating in the ouster of Ben Ali. Three years later, they’re unemployed and still waiting for positive results.
“We’re still young, maybe in 10 years,” Yasser, a 27-year-old blogger said, musing over job prospects for young people.
Local civil society leaders say youth had thought the revolution and new government would lead to jobs.
“The young people wanted work, but nothing happened,” Gharbi said. “Now, they don’t trust anyone or anything.”
“The youth have no hope, they’re leaving Sidi Bouzid to look for opportunities or they’re going to extremism and crime, joining extremists groups and going to fight in Syria,” Gharbi said.
Tunisian authorities acknowledge that hundreds of Tunisians have left to fight in Syria’s civil war. Gharbi said the lack of prospects in Sidi Bouzid are driving youth into fighting and cross-border smuggling.
“They thought the revolution would bring solutions,” Gharbi said. “It didn’t.”
Mohamed M’dalla contributed reported.
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