EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

Tunisia: Invisible Alienation, Visible Violence

A relational view of Tunisian youths

Analyzing the youth is notoriously a difficult task. How should we define this social group? Can we even speak of “the youth” in the singular? With regard to the Arab Uprisings (a phrase which I prefer to the loaded “Arab Spring”), many did not hesitate to speak of their decisive role in fueling the cycle of peaceful protests. They have been often lionized for their front-row engagement and creativity. I would like to reflect here on what has become of the Tunisian youth since that country’s uprising. Because it can be misleading to think of youth as a given age group, I will rather treat them in relational terms (Emirbayer 1997), as semi-autonomous, that is as a group of people striving for their economic and social independence but still dependent or relying on family (Herrera & Bayat 2010, p. 6). Understanding them as a group that has a tormented relationship with figures of authority, one can make sense of the headlines in recent months that Tunisia has supplied the largest number of voluntary members enrolling in the Syrian branch of Da’esh (or “Islamic State”).

A week after the end of Ramadan this summer, I traveled to Tunis and conducted interviews with young political activists to assess the re-composition and transformation of civil society in the country. Following the killings in the beach resort city of Sousse at the end of June, which left 38 tourists dead, the situation on the ground was still tense. Key buildings on the main boulevard, Habib Bourguiba Avenue, including the Ministry of Interior and other nearby buildings, were surrounded by barbed wire, with conspicuous police protection. In the meantime, the parliament had passed a controversial “counterterrorism law,” criticized by most local and international human rights associations for the extra-parliamentary power it granted to security institutions.

Since the early euphoric moments of the 2011 revolts, Tunisia has been in an awkward situation: Just like life on Bourguiba Avenue, Tunisian political and social life has been bustling with activities, demonstrations, and a mingling of Tunisians, Libyans and foreign nationals. Yet problems of security and political crises regularly undermine the hope for a more just, democratic and participatory future for Tunisians of all walks of life.

Many signs of improvement in formal political life can be listed: two free and democratically elected parliaments, in 2011 and 2014; the passing of a new constitution with nearly full support of an otherwise stalled and divided constituent assembly; the election of a new president last December; a new law (Décret-Loi 2011-88) allowing, at least before the passage of the counter-terrorism law, almost total freedom of association; and soon, for the first time in Tunisian history, the creation of a constitutional court meant to reinforce the separation of powers. Tunisia is currently governed by an alliance between a large secularist coalition, Nida Tounes, and the Islamist party Ennahda. The former won the election in October 2014 (with 37% of the popular vote), but did not have enough seats to govern on its own. Eventually, old foes Nida Tounis and Ennahda had no choice but to build a coalition. While this is seen by some as a guarantee that both sides are likely to neutralize each other’s radical wing and thus avoid a return to a one-party system, one astute commentator described this alliance as a rotten compromise, for it has, among other problems, accelerated a generational gap between political leaders and youths who do not understand this seemingly unnatural alliance and feel further alienated from the political system (Marzouki 2015).

Beyond the question mark of this awkward and fragile coalition, two massive dark clouds hover over the heads of Tunisian citizens. They also offer sobering reminders of the fragility of the political process that began with the departure of President Ben Ali on January 14, 2011, and the difficulties that youths, so iconic in the early analyses of the Arab Uprisings, are facing.

The first cloud is the economic depression, which lingers from the last years of Ben Ali’s rulership. The ailing Tunisian economy, very much dependent on European economic performance, has not picked up since 2011, making it difficult for the new wave of politicians to clean up corruption, eradicate economic malpractices, and alleviate high levels of unemployment. Just like in all other Mediterranean countries, northern shores included, youths are paying a heavy price in this economic gloominess.

The second cloud is the mounting storm related to the Islamic State (Da’esh). After the initial spread of these new jihadist extremists from Iraq into Syria, the revamped al Qaeda franchise then established firm footing in Tunisia’s neighbor: Libya. Pockets of support for Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, the new Caliph and leader of Da’esh, were first created in the eastern part of the country, near Derna, and, over the summer, in the center of Libya, not too far from the capital, Tripoli. Cutting off the smuggling routes between Libya and Tunisia has proved to be very hard as they serve a variety of different types of activities, ranging from Sub-Saharan African or Middle Eastern migration towards Italy, to the trading of weapons, drugs, or more mundane goods such as gas or even powdered milk (ICG 2013). The situation puts Tunisia in a position of vulnerability to Da’esh, and that does not bear good omens for Tunisia’s future.

How easily these threads can converge is evident in the story of the young Tunisian man who killed 38 people in the tourist resort of Sousse. Apparently, the perpetrator, a 23-year-old Tunisian, had been trained in Libya. Many have interpreted the attack, claimed by the Islamic State, as an attempt to undermine and undo Tunisia’s democratic steps forward, paving the ground for more radicalization in the region. Not by coincidence, the Tunisian government responded by hastening to pass the new law on counter-terrorism, coupled with a renewed state of emergency, and building a sand wall and trench along the Tunisian-Libyan border in order to prevent smuggling. Knowing how walls have been ineffective in the past, not to mention the fact that it is constructed out of sand, there is little hope that this measure will prevent the radicalization of people in Tunisia. (Not to mention the fact that the wall was also badly perceived in the border region because the decision came from the capital with no involvement of the local actors whose economic activities often depend on regular trade with Libya.)

Support among Tunisians for the salafi-jihadist cause epitomized by the Islamic State has clear sociological origins rooted in material reasons, some of which have been enumerated above (the poor economic situation; a sense of alienation vis-à-vis political coalitions). Among the youth in particular, a relatively high number of young men and women have decided to actively embrace the extremist cause of Da’esh (it is estimated that 3000 persons left Tunisia last year to join the movement, which is a far higher number than any other country).

A recent in-depth sociological study of two poor, run-down neighborhoods in the Tunisian capital of Tunis explains why this might be the case. Olfa Lamloum and Mohamed Ali Ben Zina (2015) led a joint study in Douar Hicher and Ettadhamen, two neighborhoods with high youth unemployment and a reputation for being a hotbed for radical Salafi militancy. Their book, which defines youth in terms of age (18 to 34 years old), is based on in-depth as well as focus group interviews, and gives a grim picture of the situation faced by this section of Tunisian society.

Some of the main findings concern the abysmal education and job opportunities; the lasting dependency on patriarchal structures of authority; the lack of spaces and opportunity for civic engagement (not, however, the absence of an intention to engage); the large sympathy for salafi groups (be they quietist or jihadist); and the widespread stigmatization that these youths face on a daily basis. Each of these points, discussed with great nuance throughout the book, are gendered, with young men much more exposed to humiliations and socio-professional dead-ends than young women. From petty humiliations at school for coming from poor neighborhoods, to systematic and often violent discrimination by police forces who target young men trying to reach the center of the capital, it is easy to imagine how certain young men are likely to fall prey to campaign recruitments by the proselytes of Da’esh, with their promise of other-worldly redemption. And indeed, the author of the last suicide attacks against soldiers of the Presidential guard at the end of November in Tunis was coming from one of these two neighborhoods, Douar Hicher.

The book demonstrates that youths with very few prospects tend to remain stuck at home. 93% of the persons interviewed for this study (again, which does not mean to represent the whole of Tunisian youth, but only these two large, run-down neighborhoods of about 150,000 inhabitants each) are forced to live with their parents due to their inability to provide for themselves. The feeling of resentment against family resulting from their situation has clear economic roots: nearly 54% of young men (as opposed to 34% of young women) have to drop out of school to help the household financially. Young males thus have to abandon their desires for self-realization (Tunisia is no exception to the well-known correlation between level of education and professional achievement: the higher the degree of school completion, the more likely to find a proper job, and thus a way out of the ghetto). 44% of youths interviewed think that their daily life has not improved since the fall of Ben Ali in January 2011. 46% even think that their condition has degraded.

Another source of frustration for youths from these neighborhoods stems from their difficulty engaging with the public at large. The sociological interviews pointed to their not having public spaces, clubs, cultural centers or parks where they can gather, debate, or engage in cultural or political activities (p. 38). Since one of the few existing public spaces is the mosque, and by extension religious activism, it is no surprise the latter are so popular (53% of the youths pray regularly). When venturing outside of their neighborhoods, young men not infrequently encounter violence: 30% of the young men have declared having been targeted for some form of physical violence (but only 13% for young women), mostly from the police, but also from people from other neighborhoods. Therefore, the sense of identification amongst youths remains confined to their neighborhoods, and does not include a broader national horizon of civic engagement.

Lamloum and Ben Zina note that there exists a profound and widespread stigmatization of the poor neighborhoods around the capital: school teachers discriminate against children from these neighborhoods, jeopardizing their chances to complete basic schooling; buses and trams coming from these areas are systematically targeted by the police as potential sources of problems. All of this reinforces feelings of exclusion. Borrowing from Loïc Wacquant, they note that the youth of these neighborhoods have been “symbolically disqualified.” And their economic and social grievances are not taken into consideration politically.

This yields a double problem: for these youths, and for Tunisian politics. For the youths, there is no faith in the economic or political system. 98% of them distrust political parties and think that politicians just fight to advance their own interests, starting with economic interests. For them, unlike the young activists I interviewed who were involved in various charitable and civic associations, the alliance between Nida Tounis and Ennahda does not constitute a puzzle: it is rather the confirmation that politicians run their affairs more for themselves than for the people at large. It is hardly surprising therefore that youths in poor neighborhoods tend to support political groups that are outside of the parliamentary order, such as the salafi party Ansar ash-Shari’a, a party that has now been declared illegal. A majority of the youths interviewed in the book declared that they knew someone who had left for Syria, either to join the ranks of Da’esh or to cross the Sicilian channel to reach Italy. They are in search of horizons where they believe their economic situation can improve (the latter migration option) or where they think they can redeem their frustrated sense of masculinity through violent means (the former, joining Da’esh).

The reverse of this coin is the problem for Tunisian politics — not just for the parties or the government, but for civil associations as well. New pieces of legislation in parliament, building a constitutional court, and passing anti-terrorism laws may all be important steps to anchor future democratic practices in Tunisia, but many people I interviewed over the summer lamented the fact that very little has been done to tackle the dismal economic situation that Tunisia has been facing for nearly ten years now. The ongoing stigmatization of poor neighborhoods only accentuates the feeling of disempowerment for youths — even Ennahda lost a huge portion of its vote in these neighborhoods (comparing the October 2011 parliamentary elections with those that took place in the fall 2014, Ennahda’s rate of support has decreased from 50% in Ettadhamen and 53% in Douar Hicher to 35% and 30% respectively in 2014) (Lamloun & Ben Zina 2015, p. 183). Some voted instead for the new leading party in Parliament, Nida Tounis. But if we believe Lamloum and Ben Zina’s study, many youths simply voted with their feet and left the country. For good (hope of a better future in Europe), or for bad (joining the rank of Da’esh).

An earlier and shorter version of this text appeared in Middle East Report 276 (MERIP, Fall 2015) .


Emirbayer, Mustafa. 1997. Manifesto for a relational sociology. American Journal of Sociology 103(2):281-317.

Herrera, Linda and Asef Bayat, eds. 2010. Being Young and Muslim: New Cultural Politics in the Global South and North. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 3-24.

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