In the southern city of Gafsa, the phosphate capital of Tunisia, the mood among young voters is sour. In the coffee shops lining the main street, unemployed men sit and discuss their options in the upcoming elections. Many are vowing to submit a blank ballot or boycott the elections altogether.
“I will go to the ballot box on Sunday, but I will not vote. I will just write an angry message on my ballot slip and hope that some politician will read it,” said Iheb Mosbah, a university dropout now working at his father’s shoe store. Mosbah feels that the politicians leading the country have let down the youth of Gafsa. His hope that the democratic elections would change life in his hometown have so far been unanswered. “Everyone here is disgusted with the politicians, the democracy we were promised isn’t working, I really don’t care about these elections anymore,” said Mosbah as he returned to his father’s boutique.
Tunisia’s mining communities have long felt neglected and sidelined by the government in Tunis. In comparison with the nation’s touristic coastal regions, the interior of Tunisia, and the mining region of Gafsa, have failed to benefit from national infrastructure developments.
Rabii Rjab, 22, feels that since the 2011 revolution neither the Ennahda government nor the troika government that replaced it have done anything for him and his community. A second-year university student in English, he was eager to show me round his neighborhood in his family’s dilapidated car. “Look at the state of these roads,” he said, as we drove through the streets of Mnaga 3, a neighborhood of unfinished houses and dusty lanes sitting beside the main overpass of Gafsa. “The people in government haven’t done anything for my neighborhood. Things are the same as they were before the revolution, even worse,” he continued.
Since the 1980s a transition in mining techniques from traditional underground mining to open pit mining by the Compagnie des Phosphates de Gafsa has meant that thousands of employees were laid off work. The high rates of unemployment coupled with a growing population sowed the seeds of discontent that finally bloomed with violent protests in 2008. Since the country’s first free elections in 2011, violence and discontent toward the ruling government continues in the southern region. Ennahdha’s Gafsa headquarters were attacked and burnt twice during the three-year period following the elections.
“In 2011 I voted for Ennahdha because they promised us a lot of changes,” said Ziat Zriba as we talked into one of the numerous coffee shops lining Gafsa’s main street. Trained as an electromechanical technician, Zriba, now 29, has been unable to find work since he finished his studies. His response to questions about the elections echo those of many of the youth in Gafsa. “I won’t vote this time. All the parties are lying, they only want power and their programmes are all the same anyway. They just copy-pasted them from each other,” he said.
The lack of genuine interest and involvement from the youth of Gafsa reflects a worrying continuity in the region’s state of affairs. With enduring levels of unemployment and perceived neglect by the government in Tunis, Gafsa’s youth have lost hope in the power of these elections to change their situation. “I am not a pessimist,” said Rjab, as we continued our tour of his neighborhood, “but I don’t think that these elections are a solution for the people in the South. In ten years, when our generation gets power, only then will we be able to change things.”
Louis Bonhoure is a journalist with Tunisia Live and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Anthropology and Human Rights from Bard College, New York. Originally from France and UK he has lived in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and the US. He his currently interested in Tunisia’s transitional justice and human right abuses.