Missing Youth in Tunisia? Implications of Regional Disparities and Center-Periphery Divide

This is part of POMEPS Studies 36: Youth Politics in the Middle East and North Africa. Download the full PDF here.

Giulia Cimini, Università L’Orientale of Naples

In the post-2011 euphoria, the Tunisian revolution was unanimously labelled as ‘youth revolution,’ both domestically and internationally. ‘Youth’ were taken to embody dynamism and positive change, often presented as a synonym for the ‘marginalized,’[1] the mistreated and repressed part of society most suffering from authoritarian rule. The expectation which followed is that after 2011 this marginalized ‘youth’ could finally release its energies and make its voice heard.

But Tunisian youth continue to face many of the same challenges eight years on as before the revolt: high unemployment rates, economic exclusion, and political disillusion. This simple conclusion is misleading, however. While there is no question that youth conditions are as troubled as before across the country, the problems are not evenly distributed across the country. Young Tunisians in the south and in marginal communities face very different, and more severe, challenges than do those in the coastal and major urban areas. A spatial differentiation would provide a more comprehensive and detailed account of the situation facing ‘youth’ in Tunisia.

Regional divides have a greater descriptive and explanatory power than the generational divide tout court. What does this mean for the discourse of ‘youth’?  This essay first examines the emergence of ‘youth’ as a hybrid social and political category in Tunisia, pointing to the ‘fluidity’ of such a concept, even in the official state-led discourse prior to and post 2011. It then accounts for regional disparities among youth in terms of ‘center-periphery’ dynamics, in particular providing insights from the governorate of Tataouine, traditionally one of the most marginalized regions in the country.

Interestingly, whereas people in their twenties and thirties constitute the bulk of demonstrators over the last years, “youth” or “young people” became a synonym for unemployed, regardless of a clear-cut age definition. Hence, the youth protests in Tataouine and the interior regions incorporated diffused (e.g., the quest for social justice and jobs) as much as local claims (e.g., context specific underdevelopment or environmental issues) in their discursive frames, focusing on the demand to locally exploit local resources. As Matt Gordner points out in his contribution to this collection, land and labour protests in the South distinguished from nation-wide campaigns and movements like Manich Msameh and Fech Nestannou for the tribal dimension coming in and the ways authorities negotiated with them.[2]

It should be no surprise that notions of karama (dignity) and hogra (a feeling of abandonment whose corollaries are social exclusion and humiliation) linked to spatial inequalities have represented a common thread among youth across the country’s marginal areas, kick-starting the ‘Alfa grass’ revolution in 2011, better known as the ‘Jasmine’ revolution.[3] Not all of these protests impact the national level. But there has been a steady stream of localized contentious outbursts which punctuate the country’s political trajectory with strikes, sit-ins, blockades, and rallies of unemployed graduates on a sporadic or on a day-to-day basis.[4] 

‘Youth’ as a problematic category

‘Youth’ persists as a problematic analytic category within literature, not least for the ‘fluidity’ of its concept. This is evident, for instance, when referring to the shifting age range it encompasses, or to the categories of people it includes as object of governmental policies. In Tunisia, youth as a demographic category has been significantly stretched beyond traditional practices to include also the population in their thirties, as well as young people neither in employment nor in education and training (NEETs) in addition to the traditional educated unemployed.[5] Moving the age bracket by a few years does not dramatically change the portrait in terms of unemployment figures or other relevant indicators.

But this shifting attitude does have significance in terms of subjectivity and governmental attitude. On the one hand, it highlights the postponement of the transition to adulthood itself, linked to one’s integration into the social community, an aspect strictly related to a delayed achievement of individual autonomy, social responsibility, and independence; and, on the other hand, to the official and social recognition that past policies failed to target the youth question.

What I refer to as ‘fluidity’ of youth also means the heterogeneity of this ‘category,’ which is often underestimated in the mainstream narrative. Youth intersects with other analytical concerns such as class, gender, and geographical belonging. I am particularly interested in how regional disparities affect the life of youth in many underappreciated ways, including great differences in the access to employment opportunities and labour-market information, quality of public services, as well as patterns of mobility. In sum, the experience of being young is deeply affected by the place one is born into and that of residence, which is also associated to a different extent of what has been referred to elsewhere as a ‘multiple marginalization’ based on intertwined manifestations of estrangement.[6]

Being young in marginalized regions: Evidence from Tataouine

Whereas the chances of young people to find employment still depend first and foremost on their family background, spatial inequalities also continue to foster unequal competition among Tunisian youth. The 2011 popular protests thrust the long-standing issue of unease spatial development into the spotlight. More attention was given to the ‘two-speed country’ stemming from the spatial division: first, a rural-urban divide within each region; and second, a regional imbalance between the coastal areas and the internal regions. It is in this context that a ‘decentralization’ set of reformist ideas came to the forefront of political and social debate in Tunisia, promising to optimize resource allocation and be the solution to persistent inequalities.

The southern governorate of Tataouine is a well-known hub of instability for its socio-economic marginalization and contentious street politics such as the El Kamour protests in 2017 and their revival in April 2019.[7] Although Tataouine’s oil supplies amount to about 40 percent of national production, the population fails to benefit from according levels of employment and redistribution of state resources. This perceived neglect drives complaints about the lack of services and infrastructural development as a deliberate strategy pursued by the ruling elites.

The persistence of major obstacles to youth’s inclusion and self-fulfilment based on regional inequalities is also reflected in a number of statistical indicators. Tataouine has the highest unemployment rate in the country, set at around 32 percent, over twice the national average (15.4 percent),[8] and affecting mostly young people.[9] Also, it is at the tail end of the ranking based on the regional development index elaborated by the Ministry of Development, Investment, and International Cooperation, together with other southern and center-western governorates.[10] Decades-long selective policies aimed at improving the productivity and competitiveness of those regions where the national elites originated from and also deemed as offering comparative advantages with respect to the global market unlike internal regions, have contributed to the general impoverishment of the area, cutting it out from the manufacturing network among others. For instance, all industrial companies (92 percent) are overwhelmingly located around three major cities, Tunis, Sfax and Sousse.  

Tataouine lags behind tremendously in terms of private investments. Tunis and Tataouine account for 20 percent and 0.9 percent respectively of the national distribution of private companies,[11] with negative consequences for labour demand that strongly penalize the South. Despite the importance of public investment and strong incentives  favoring private investments, the interior regions did not take much advantage of such opportunities and benefits.[12] Paradoxically, public investments by inhabitants between 1990 and 2005 were higher in the interior regions than in the coastal area,[13] yet they failed to attract the private sector and to jump-start a sustainable model of local development.

One possible explanation sticks out: public investments did not create local jobs, but spurred local-based production whose profits were drained from other areas, those marketing the products. The export-based model of development has created a two-tier economy where the offshore sector, mostly located in the coastal areas, developed rapidly while the onshore sector struggled to develop and to create jobs. As a result, the inhabitants of inland regions far from the ports had to either migrate to coastal towns offering more lucrative job opportunities or focus on rural activities in low-productivity and, therefore, low-income.[14]

The economy in the interior and southern regions like Tataouine is less diversified than in the coastal ones, and highly dependent on external revenue sources (like remittances, informal business or seasonal tourism), making them more vulnerable to market- and external shocks. Indeed, most of my interlocutors complain about the lack of economic diversification, and argue in favor of tapping into the region’s underutilized potential to improve its competitiveness. Agricultural activities are also a main obstacle to development, with difficult issues such as the use of collective lands and the exploitation of water resources by private companies.[15]

Disparities in education exacerbate such differences. Since the modernizing and secularizing efforts of Bourguiba’s political project, education has been one of the pillars of the post-independence state, resulting in sustained public funding compared to other MENA countries. Education, and university education in particular, were conceived as means of social mobility and gender equality.[16] Traditionally, education has also been the battleground of political forces to ensure political loyalty and support (on this point in Turkey, see Ozipek’s contribution). In the case of Tunisia, the expectations of young people, particularly among graduates, have remained increasingly unmet over the last decades. In fact, a puzzling paradox has emerged: the higher the education level, the harder it becomes to secure employment, as shown by the higher unemployment rate for holders of higher degrees.[17]

Again, delving into spatial differentiation helps to unpack these differences across youth. Whereas the rural-urban divide within each governorate still accounts for the most striking differences in terms of illiteracy and access to education, school attendance rates and the quality of teaching are lower in central and southern regions compared to the national average, further reducing the access to the labour market for a segment of less-qualified people.[18] Likewise, lower scores obtained at national exams for the high school diploma are discriminating factors to access most prestigious faculties with potentially greater employability.[19] The uneven geographical distribution of schools and universities greatly favoring Greater Tunis[20] and the Tunisian coast accounts for an unequal distribution of resources and increases the burden of students from peripheral areas with additional expenses for accommodation and travel to those regions.

In Tataouine, for instance, there are but two higher (public) institutions belonging to the University of Gabes: the Higher Institute of Technological Studies and the Higher Institute of Arts and Crafts (ISET and ISAM in their French acronyms) focusing on IT and design respectively, which replicate twin institutes in other governorates according to a top-down national planification for higher education that does not take into account the peculiarities of the local economic fabric. All this has an impact on the quality of youth education, and their employability as job-seekers.

Furthermore, as some observers point out, ‘the growing stress on the need to increase youth education and skills, and on youth self-entrepreneurship, also had the advantage of placing the burden of youth labour market insertion on the youth themselves, rather than on the state’ also in post-2011 Tunisia.[21] Without questioning the economic model itself, the education gap  rhetoric – i.e., the mismatch between  the  competencies  required  by  the  labour  market  and  what  young  people  study  in  higher education – remains a central tenet  to  explain  youth  exclusion as it was in the past.[22] The need for a more diversified and differentiated education became increasingly urgent with regard to the failure of the traditional state’s great investment in massive over-education as a solution to youth employment.[23]

Youth and migration’s temptation

In the absence of viable alternatives, migration – like smuggling and odd jobs – is always a strategy on the youth’s agenda to cope with the situation, and not always for despair, but in the search of a better life and financial success.[24]

The persistence of inequality of opportunities related to unequal regional development is a push factor for greater mobility from regions like Tataouine. Indeed, most of the migration flows are internal to the country.[25] Drawing on the last census (2014), the Greater Tunis stands as the most attracting pole for human capital, with the center-west regions (Kairouan, Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid) as the least, followed by the north-west. Since this mobility is mostly motivated by the search of employment, unsurprisingly, the attractive pole has the lowest poverty and unemployment rates, the highest concentration of enterprises per thousand inhabitants, as well as the highest regional labour market distribution rates and public investment (25 and 48 percent respectively). By contrast, the latter group of governorates poorly performs according to the same indicators.[26] 

Emigration abroad is another phenomenon involving mostly youth (more than 73 percent are aged between 15 – 30).[27] Not unusually for youth of Southern governorates like Tatatouine, France looks closer than the Tunisian capital, not least because of the links with the diaspora community already settled there. Families play a big role in encouraging youth emigration. ‘They don’t understand the loss of human capital for our territory’ sadly stresses a former teacher ‘and when their sons reach the destination, they celebrate and even sacrifice sheep and rams.’[28] After all, it is not to be forgotten that the diaspora resources represent an important portion of both the local and national economy, in the form of remittances and labour-market assets sent or brought home by migrants or those who return. In 2018 alone, the World Bank estimated US $2 billion in remittances were sent to Tunisia, representing 4.9 percent of the country’s GDP.[29]

On the other hand, central to the interviewees’ experience is a mixture of frustration – for being still dependent on their parents for a living, – and of intolerance to social constraints. In other words, a life abroad become tantamount to a freedom difficult to gain within one’s own community.[30] Emigration hence represents either a way to answer social and family pressure, and the best way to assert their own identity by escaping the surveillance of parental authority and the pressing social constraints of the community.  

The persisting neglect of this region hardens the disillusionment with the political process and the representative institutions manifesting in continuous contentious politics and reduced participation to electoral politics among others. In May 2018 municipal elections – a new achievement of the post-revolutionary era – Tataouine’s voter turnout was under the already very low national average (33 percent) with 28 percent. Newly elected municipal councils, but the same can be said for MPs, still need to win people’s trust, whereas tribal allegiances play a major role in shaping political preferences and act as intermediaries with the central power.[31] Forthcoming presidential and legislative elections will be a litmus test for citizens’ detachment, and to see to what extent independents or anti-system forces are gaining ground in a region that is considered highly conservative and a stronghold of the Muslim-democratic party of Ennahda.

Looking ahead

Spatial disparities call for differentiated solutions contrasting to the ‘one size fits all’ approach. This implies region-tailored answers for youth within a strategic plan for long-term sustainable development. By contrast, political short-term approaches – as a result of, on the one hand, continuous government reshuffles and ‘political tourism’[32] hampering accountability and, on the other, of ad-hoc solutions aimed to plug-up the emergencies[33] – risks to further alienate youth, exacerbate their precariousness by reproducing, rather than mitigating, disparities and push for continuous emigration flows.

To cope with youth redistributive claims, the process of Decentralization enshrined in the 2014 Constitution and activated in the May 2018 municipal elections, has promised to more equally reallocate resources in order to better value local human capital and natural resources. However, in order to deliver concrete results, it requires an effective power transfer, first and foremost financial, which has not been the case thus far.

In the absence of a well-defined legal framework, autonomous financial tools and coordination mechanisms among stakeholders, the proper functioning of a new local administration governance model will be sensibly slowed down and still highly dependent on central management. By falling short of youth’s expectations to reduce if not sort out persistent regional imbalances, the decentralization process is likely to act as a further element of frustration and disconnection of marginalized communities rather than a driver for reconciliation with the central state.



[1] Maria Cristina Paciello, Renata Pepicelli and Daniela Pioppi, “Youth in Tunisia: Trapped Between Public Control and the Neo-Liberal Economy,” Power2Youth Working Paper No. 6 (February 2016). Available online at: < http://power2youth.iai.it/system/resources/W1siZiIsIjIwMTYvMDMvMDkvMTFfMzdfMDFfOTk1X3AyeV8wNi5wZGYiXV0/p2y_06.pdf >

[2] Manich Msmah (I will not forgive) and Fech Nestannou (What are we waiting for?) are the anti-reconciliation and anti-austerity movements since 2015 and 2018 respectively. 

[3] Some observed how the marginalized region of Sidi Bouzid, cradle of the revolution, is better represented by the alfa grass than jasmines that grow instead in the coastal areas. Although the ‘center’ later identified with the rallying cry from the ‘margins’, it is symptomatic that the 2010-11 popular protests originating – as other protest cycles before them – from the poorest interior regions have been labelled by the mainstream narrative with a symbol that is more clearly consistent with the imagery of richest and ‘central’ regions. See on this, Habib Ayeb, “Social and Political Geography of the Tunisian Revolution: The Alfa Grass Revolution”, Review of African Political Economy, Vol. 38, No. 129 (September 2011), p. 467-479.

[4] Examples of major post-2011 outbursts of contentious politics – all originating from marginalized regions – include the Winou el Petrol? (Where is the Oil) campaign in 2015 starting from Tataouine, the Kasserine’s protests over the suicide of a young unemployed in January 2016, the manifestation against the oil company at the Kerkennah islands in April 2016, and the El Kamour movement in 2017.

[5] See Maria C. Paciello et al., “Youth in Tunisia”

[6] Larbi Sadiki, “Regional Development in Tunisia: The Consequences of Multiple Marginalization” Brookings Doha Center, 14 January 2019.

[7] In April 2017, the blockade at the oil extraction site of El Kamour in the governorate of Tataouine lasted for over three months, leveraged on two main intertwined demands: first, the re-investment of oil profits locally, and second, the creation of more jobs for residents by the locally active private companies. After a violent repression by the police, leading to the death of one protester, run over by a police car, the Chahed’s government negotiated a package of measures. Due to a partial fulfilment of those promises, a new movement, El Kamour 2, has recently re-emerged.

[8] Figures come from the World Bank’s 2018 dataset, which for Tunisia draws upon International Labour Organization estimates. (Data retrieved in April 2019).

[9] Tunisian National Institute of Statistics (INS), at <http://www.ins.nat.tn/sites/default/files/publication/pdf/Note_ENPE_2T2018_F.pdf >

[10]  Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, “Études économiques de l’OCDE: Tunisie 2018” (Paris: Éditions OCDE, 2018).

[11] Ibid., 122

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Tunisian Ministry of Regional Development, “Une nouvelle vision du développement régional : Livre blanc” (Tunis, 2011)

[15] The preferential exploitation of water resources by big companies at the expense of local communities has a far bigger impact in other regions like Gafsa and Gabes (Personal interviews by the author in Gafsa, Metlaoui and Redeyef, Tunisia,   April 2019). See also the 2014 documentary “Gabes Labess” (All is well in Gabes)  < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_wkggqYCBg > and the Tunisian Observatory for food sovereignty and environment at www.osae-marsad.org

[16] Isabel Schaefer, Political revolt and youth unemployment in Tunisia: exploring the education-employment mismatch (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2018)

[17] Samah Ben Abada, “A university diploma is no longer a source of pride in the Maghreb”, The Arab Weekly, 15 July 2018. <https://thearabweekly.com/university-diploma-no-longer-source-pride-maghreb>

[18] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, “Études économiques de l’OCDE”

[19] In the municipality of Tataouine, the success rate at national exams for the high school diploma stands at 26 percent, as shown by the joint report from the Office du Développement du Sud and the United Nations Development Programme, “Communes en chiffres. Rapport du profil sectoriel de la commune de Tataouine” (Tataouine, 2018, 61)

[20] The greater metropolitan areas of Tunis comprises 4 governorates (Tunis, Ariana, Manouba and Ben Arous)

[21] Maria C. Paciello et al., “Youth in Tunisia,” 5.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Isabel Schaefer, Political revolt and youth unemployment in Tunisia

[24] Personal interviews by the author in Tataouine, April 2019.

[25] National Institut of Statistics, Recensement général de la population et de l’habitat 2014: caractéristiques migratoires (Tunis, 2017)

[26] Vanessa Szakal and Lilia Ben Achour, “Migration interne, marché de l’emploi et disparités régionales” Nawaat, 9 March 2016. Accessed May 11, 2019. <https://nawaat.org/portail/2016/03/09/migration-interne-marche-de-lemploi-et-disparites-regionales/ >

[27] National Institut of Statistics, Recensement général de la population et de l’habitat 2014

[28] Personal interview by author with a former teacher and civil society activist in Tataouine, Tunisia, April 2019.

[29] World Bank Migration and Remittances data (updated April 2019).

< http://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/migrationremittancesdiasporaissues/brief/migration-remittances-data >

[30] Malek Lakhal “Tunisia: Illegal migration and brain-drain, two sides of the same coin” Nawaat, 7 May 2019. <https://nawaat.org/portail/2019/05/07/tunisia-illegal-migration-and-brain-drain-two-sides-of-the-same-coin/>

[31] Author’s interview in Tataouine, April 2019.

[32] Since 2011 legislative elections, Tunisia has witnessed five prime minister and major government changes, and several minor reshuffles. Also, MPs frequently changing parties or splitting off from their original party to create new ones has characterised the country’s political landscape thus far. Suffice it to think at Nidaa Tounes, the incumbent party, which lost more than half of its deputies in less than a legislature.

[33] For instance, along the lines of a format experimented after the 2008 protests in the mining region of Gafsa in response to social pressure, new ad hoc service companies have been created to hire part of the local workforce like young graduates. See, for instance, the Environmental, Plantation and Gardening Companies in Gafsa, Tataouine and Gabes, in connection to the big companies of phosphates, oil and chemical products respectively. But the extent to which employees have a real job  is debatable, as many critics point out that the disbursement from the companies of a monthly salary is a way to keep social peace in exchange of no service. Personal interviews of the author with labor unionists and civil society activists in Gafsa, Redeyef, Metlaoui and Tataouine, April 2019.