They have come more than 100 miles from their homes to huddle around a government building, camped out on piles of mattresses laid next to canvas tents since February. Banners reading “freedom, dignity” hang over their heads, and each day, they survive on a loaf of bread, three cans of tuna, and whatever change passersby can spare.
Originally, there were 36 of them. Two have since attempted suicide and are still in the hospital.
Those who remain are not here to demand a new government or complain about persecution or call for the institution of Sharia law.
They want jobs.
Five years ago, their hometown of Kasserine was a cradle of the Arab Spring revolution that brought an end to a half-century of autocratic rule in Tunisia and swept in a representative democracy seen by many as a model for the Arab world.
Today, however, Kasserine is a cautionary tale of how, in some ways, little has changed. Promises of political change ring hollow on an empty stomach.
“The biggest lie was the revolution – the politicians used the sentiment in the streets for their own end,” says Zeid Hrizi, a 30-something protest leader outside the Ministry of Employment who has been out of work for 12 years. “If they lose us, they lose Tunisia’s future.”
But there is a flip side. In Kasserine, Tunisia faces a challenge well known across the Arab world – a remote, borderland area where the rule of law is under constant threat from terrorists and a general lack of economic opportunity.
If the government can set Kasserine right, it could gain a new future for the country.
“Unemployment, a lack of hope, and extremism are the three major threats to Tunisia’s future,” says Walid al-Bannani, a member of parliament from Kasserine. “All three are present in Kasserine. If we can save Kasserine, we can save the country.”
The best work in Kasserine
On the main road leading to Kasserine, 140 miles southwest of the national capital, Tunis, young boys sit in makeshift wooden shacks selling gasoline smuggled on the backs of donkeys over the mountainous border with Algeria – $8 for a five-gallon canister. This, all agree, is basically the best work in town.
In the town itself, cafes are teeming with activity, with men of all ages sitting on the plastic chairs that line the streets – not because of a thriving street life, but because they have nowhere else to be.
Tunisia’s national unemployment rate is 15 percent. In Kasserine, it is about 30 percent. Youth unemployment is at 40 percent nationally, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In Kasserine, residents say, it is more than 65 percent.
Young Kasserine residents, like many of their Tunisians counterparts, are unable to get loans from government-affiliated banks to get business ideas off the ground. Banks insist on a 30 percent downpayment and high interest rates no one can afford.
“Unemployment is a way of life,” says Hossam Yahyaoui, who runs Kasserine FM, a volunteer radio station. With young men needing to build up money to start a family, he adds, “marriage and a job has become a myth in Kasserine.”
The frustration has spilled over at times. In January, days of nationwide violent protests erupted after an unemployed Kasserine resident climbed a power pole and electrocuted himself in a suicide-protest. In September, a group of 20 unemployed youths, promised jobs that never materialized, stormed the Kasserine governor’s mansion and his office, forcing the governor to flee in the middle of the night.
The town faces many challenges to creating jobs, none of them easy.
A government plan pushed through after the revolution to appease young protesters – employing citizens as street-cleaners – is running out of funds. Those who take part in the program describe its $120-a-month salary as “starvation wages.”
The answer, the government says, is private investment. For residents of this landlocked, arid town that lies in the shadow of ongoing security operations against jihadist militants, the notion is laughable.
“There are no industrial areas, there are no companies, there are few farms and even fewer buyers,” says Anter Somaali, journalist with the Kasserine-based Shems FM radio station. “Who is going to come and hire people in Kasserine?”
A recruiting-ground for terrorism
With the rampant unemployment, drugs and crime have flourished. Drug-addiction rates in Tunisia have increased 70 percent nationwide since the 2011 revolution, according to a 2015 study by the Tunisian newspaper Assabah.
Discarded needles and shards of broken whiskey bottles litter the street in the Hay Al Karma neighborhood. And on one recent night, an unknown assailant shot and killed a beloved schoolmaster for the $9 in his wallet.
“We are turning on each other, brother is killing brother, sister is killing sister,” said an imam at the Kasserine Great Mosque during a Friday sermon in August. “We must return to the path of the prophet and his companions to save the Islamic nation.”
In such conditions, jihadists have found opportunity.
Attracted by Kasserine’s lack of police presence, its mountainous terrain, and the presence of Al Qaeda over the border in Algeria, jihadists turned the town’s outskirts into a base for operations.
Meanwhile, jihadist clerics took advantage of a power vacuum after the revolution to seize control of more than half of Tunisia’s mosques. They recruited dozens of Kasserine residents to neighboring Libya and to the mountains a few miles away to train with Al Qaeda, and now, the self-declared Islamic State.
“For two years, the jihadists were controlling the mosques and controlling the youth,” says Mahfouth Ben Deraa, a young imam and an outspoken critic of jihadists. “Now we are fighting over a generation that has been convinced that the state is an enemy of Islam and must be fought.”
Of the 6,000 Tunisians now fighting with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, dozens are from Kasserine; 1,000 are estimated to be with the Islamic State in Libya.
More recently, jihadists began exporting terror back to Tunisia through Kasserine.
The 2015 attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis, which left 22 tourists dead, was reportedly planned by an Al Qaeda splinter group in the nearby Algerian mountains. An Islamic State affiliate has launched a guerrilla war against the Tunisian Army, leading to cat-and-mouse chases through the mountains outside Kasserine.
'A first step'?
The government has taken its firmest steps in taking back Tunisia’s mosques: 95 percent are now under the control of imams appointed by the religious affairs ministry.
The cycle of unemployment and drug abuse has proven the greater challenge. Government hiring, which many Kasserine youth see as the only near-term solution, has been ruled out. Public sector salaries already account for 38 percent of the national budget. Cuts, not hires, are coming.
Instead, the government is placing its hopes on a new investment law passed by the parliament in September. The goal is to fund megaprojects that create jobs and pour money into the local economy.
It is hardly a cure-all. But it is at least a place to start.
“Any economic project would be a first step,” says Mr. Bannani, the member of parliament. “If we can restore hope to Kasserine, we can restore hope to a generation.”