Nineteen year old, Mondher Tounsi’s take on his hometown of Kasserine is pretty clear. For Tounsi, the northwestern border town is, “home to the highest percentages of crime and terrorism”.
For Kasserine, launch pad of the January unemployment protests that returned talk of a second revolution to the dinner tables of the capital, little has improved. In the nine months since the governorate’s jobless first set fire to the car tires that signaled the start of nearly a month of violence, unemployment remains ingrained within the culture, leaving the long term jobless at the mercy of militant recruiters.
Throughout Tunisia, Kasserine has become known for its lack of accessible schools and the high number of jobless who end up roaming the streets in desperate search for financial support. Among higher education graduates, unemployment stands 33.4 percent, almost double the national average of 15.6 percent Kasserine’s proximity to the Algerian border and the areas close association with Militant exacerbates condition within the town, deterring investors and discouraging efforts to regenerate the region.“You see investors interested in us. You see all these governmental officials making visits to Kasserine on the news. But I have never seen any of these people in real life talk about our real issues,” Tounsi told Tunisia Live, “These people are welcomed by governmental officials who show them the best side of Kasserine, but hide its real side.”
Tounsi first gained media’s attention over the summer for his near perfect grade point average in his arts baccalaureate school diploma. His name again surfaced when, together with Ahlem Nasraoui the president of the youth-based Young Leaders and Entrepreneurs, and a US State Department, Global Emerging Leaders awardee decided to use their education to launch a project to fight extremism within the region named Youth Impact (YI) in August this year.
The pair intended to host a series of workshops based on sharing theories of peace keeping and conflict resolution and began by inviting twenty Kasserine residents to attend. In response, Tounsi and Nasraoui received over 100 responses after they first sent their online applications to people from within their city.
Their initiative received initial funding from the U.S. Department of State, something he was advised not to discuss, before other organizations came forward to offer their assistance. Despite the initial enthusiasm, Tounsi had a lot of difficulties gaining approval by government authorities. The officials he contacted said they were “wary” of this initiative, arguing they didn’t see it as being particularly “beneficial”. Youth Impact has received widespread praise from several news outlets, who see the project as an original and refreshing way to address roots of domestic terrorism. In contrast to the security services, which Tounsi sees as focusing their efforts on training soldiers, buying weapons and eliminating suspected militants, Tounsi emphasizes the importance of education in countering the high rates of militant violence that affect many areas of the country.
According to recent statistics 78% of Islamic State, (Daesh) fighters are aged between 18 and 30 years, and 73% had a basic level of religious knowledge. Tounsi believes the main reason Islamic extremism has become so popular among Tunisia’s youth is due to how they are “continuously excluded from any decision-making process”. He explained that the youth of Kasserine, and the south in general are crushed by rising unemployment and the absence of any meaningful infrastructure. A lot of young people drop out of school because of a lack of accessibility and opportunities, and many seek to fulfill their lives by helping out their families, albeit with no source of income to sustain them. “Becoming a terrorist is a solution to these people,” Mondher said, adding “imagine having no money, and all of a sudden, you meet someone who offers you everything.”
According to Mondher, the government has failed to address the “root cause of extremism”. For example, the Tunisian military is currently receiving security training from 40 personnel of the UK Armed Forces, yet invests little in building accessible primary and secondary education. For Tounsi, the solution needs to go beyond simply “catching the bad guys”. He explains how in Kasserine they “all know who is radicalized, but the government does not want to get involved until they finally execute their plans, but by that time, the damage is done.”
Mondher Tounsi and Ahlem Nasroui are calling on youths to “take things in their own hands and create opportunities to counter terrorism through education and awareness.” One of the goals of the two young men is to inspire other individuals to prove to the government themselves that they are ready themselves to contribute to educating those around them on how to avoid the dangers of radicalization.
Nourjahen is an intern in the Tunisia Live newsroom. A graduate of the US Department of State's, Yes program, Nourjahen is fluent in English, German, Arabic and Fren