Here in Tunisia’s own “Paris suburbs,” the unemployed, unrepresented, and unheard young men who led the Tunisian revolution have a message that is both simple and provocative.
“We don’t want freedoms, we want jobs,” says Yassin Ben, 24.
In neighborhoods like this one at the edge of the capital, Tunis, the very same conditions that led to Tunisia’s 2011 revolution – unemployment, marginalization, urban migration, and police harassment – persist.
Economic experts warn that the government must find a way for the young people of Douar Hicher and neighborhoods like it across the country to be included in the decisionmaking about their future and provided with the means to lift themselves out of poverty.
It was no surprise that Douar Hicher was one of the hotspots of violent protests that erupted across Tunisia in January over a government decision to raise prices and taxes on basic goods to meet a rising budget deficit.
“Our problem isn’t politics or freedoms: it is unemployment and marginalization,” says Oussama Marassi, a humanitarian and political activist, who like many residents is without electricity or running water.
“Seven years after the revolution, and either our politicians still haven’t learned that, or they just don’t care.”
“The reality is that the problems that sparked the revolution have not gone away. In many cases for these marginalized communities, they have gotten worse,” said Romdhane Ben Amor of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, or FTDES. “These communities are socio-economic time-bombs.”
There are several similar communities in Tunisia, such as Hay Tadhamin, and hundreds of thousands live in similar conditions across North Africa in the suburbs of Cairo, Algiers, and Rabat and Casablanca in Morocco.
Experts warn that these populations, after having their hopes raised by the Arab Spring, may be the ones to carry the next stage of popular protests and insurrection, and represent the greatest political threat to their governments.
The urban migration wave
Douar Hicher began as a collection of illegal settlements in a wave of urban migration in the 1980s, as impoverished families from neglected rural towns and villages built homes on government farmland at the edge of Tunis. The families were later granted public housing in the 1990s.
Since the 2011 revolution, urban migration from rural areas has increased dramatically. The population of three-square-mile Douar Hicher grew from 80,000 to more than 100,000 between 2014 and 2017 alone.
According to a 2014 World Bank report, some 90 percent of rural families in Tunisia report that members have migrated to urban centers. Many end up in Douar Hicher.
Young men bring their families and soon their extended families – all in search of jobs – adding makeshift stories of cheap cement and cinderblock atop already crumbling public housing. Officials refer to Douar Hicher as Tunisia’s “Paris suburbs,” the impoverished French communities of disenfranchised North African immigrants that are hotbeds of discontent and fertile recruiting grounds for extremists.
“Everyone who wants to find work comes to the capital; and everyone who comes to the capital ends up here,” says Majed Hamouda, secretary-general of the Manouba governorate, which governs the enclave.
“The government cannot simply keep up with this exceptional, unplanned population growth.”
The major draw to Douar Hicher – in addition to its unregulated plots of land and rent as low as $80 per month – is the location of garment and plastics factories in the area’s industrial zone at the southeast edge of the neighborhood.
However, six of the 12 factories have shut down since the 2011 revolution, and the few jobs that go around pay little; an average of $7 to $10 a day.
Residents who have ideas for small businesses languish in the near-endless bureaucracy of the central Tunisian government.
Fawzi Khimiri, 42, who works odd jobs as a carpenter and construction worker for $5 a day, has been waiting for over three years for the government to approve his permit to open a newspaper and telephone card kiosk.
“We want to live clean, law-abiding lives, but the system is not allowing us to do so,” Mr. Khimiri says.
Youth unemployment across Tunisia stands at 35 percent, but experts say in neighborhoods like Douar Hicher that number is higher than 50 percent. School drop-out rates are higher here than elsewhere in the capital; drug and alcohol abuse is widespread.
To make ends meet, many Douar Hicher residents collect discarded water bottles to sell to recycling companies for 6 cents per pound, others rummage through trash bins for stale bread, which they dry out in the sun and sell as animal feed. Chickens walk along the street.
“This is the real Tunis,” Khimiri says, pointing to unpaved, muddy streets. “Forget all the villas and cafes in La Marsa,” he says, referring to the popular vacation destination, “this is how Tunisians really live.”
‘Politicians used us’
Politicians have made little headway in marginalized neighborhoods such as Douar Hicher. Here, “politician” has become a dirty word – a synonym for thief, liar, and traitor.
“We went to the streets in hope of a job, of a decent life, dignity, and the chance to raise a family of our own,” says Ben, who was 17 when he headed to the streets as the revolution ignited. “Instead it has gotten worse for us. The politicians used us.”
Fewer than 3 percent of Tunisians under the age of 30 are members of political parties, according to FTDES, a Tunisian nongovernment organization and research center. That number is even lower in neighborhoods such as Douar Hicher.
Local representatives of secular Nidaa Tounis and Islamist Ennahda, the two coalition parties that control the government, are jeered by locals and treated as government “spies.”
In recent years, jihadist groups such as Ansar al Sharia used Douar Hicher as a recruiting grounds, drafting dozens of young men eager for money and purpose, sending them off to fight in Libya and Syria. Residents have since soured on the jihadists, but the “terrorist” label has stuck for many.
Omar Ouchtati was one of many residents arrested for suspected terrorist ties. He spent three years in prison, where he says he was beaten on a regular basis. Now Mr. Ouchtati cannot travel outside Douar Hicher without security permits. Other young men say they are the target of “round up the usual suspects” practices by the police, who they claim take them into the station on a near-daily basis.
“The police’s presence is creating terrorism,” Ouchtati says. “They have imprisoned us in our own homes and neighborhoods.”
A way forward?
One government official believes he has the answer.
Manouba governor Ahmed Samawi has an “open-door policy,” hosting daily meetings with young Douar Hicher community leaders, and passes their requests on to the central government, advocating on their behalf.
“As soon as we start treating these young men as a threat, that is when they become a danger to our society,” Mr. Samawi says from his office, a ceramic-tiled former palace of the Bey [monarch] of Tunis. “But if we treat them as part of the solution and not part of the problem, then they transform from a burden on society to a society’s strength.”
Families and activists come in and out of Samawi’s office, bearing requests for health insurance, to fix a collapsed roof, or find work for young men. During two separate visits to the governor’s office, this reporter noted no fewer than 20 young men and women meeting with the governor.
Yet Samawi is one man, and the highly centralized Tunisian government has yet to form a strategy to include disaffected young men and women into the young democracy’s future.
“People say Tunisia is a model of progress, but we say it is a model of disaster,” says Mr. Marassi, the political activist. “One percent are living like kings, and the rest are trying to find a way to live to see tomorrow.”
“That is a rotten foundation destined to collapse.”