Unemployment breeds anger in home of Arab Spring

BEN GUERDANE, Tunisia (Reuters) - Abdulwahhab Karti rummages in the living room that doubles as his bedroom and presents two diplomas. One shows the soft-spoken 27-year-old has a degree in applied mathematics. The other qualifies him to teach maths.

Not only has Karti never taught, but he has been unable to find any job since he graduated in 2009. He supports his parents and four younger sisters by peddling goods in the Tunisian border town of Ben Guerdane, a precarious occupation that brings in a trickle of money, as his living conditions attest.

Karti’s sisters sleep on the floor in a dark and stuffy room. His parents sleep in the next room on a bed, the only substantial piece of furniture in their concrete bungalow.

Sixteen months after a revolution ousted leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and set off the Arab Spring, young Tunisians say they have yet to see the fruits of the uprising they helped to spark.

Unemployed, too poor to marry and often supporting large families, youths from deprived provincial towns are piling pressure on the government to provide the jobs that, along with freedom and better living standards, were a key demand of the revolution.

“We keep saying after the revolution we hope things will improve,” says Karti’s mother, Mabrouka, flinging open the door to her bedroom to reveal a rough concrete floor and a tiny window devoid of any glass or even a plastic covering. “But our situation was the same before the revolution as it is after.”

Tunisia’s economy has had a bumpy ride since last year’s revolt. Amid the messy work of building a new democracy, the economy shrank 1.8 percent, with persistent strikes and protests paralyzing factories and hitting the economy just as young people stepped up their demands for better jobs and conditions.

Though the economy returned to growth this year, unemployment figures have lagged, with the jobless rate rising to 18 percent in March, from 13 percent before the uprising.

Unemployment among graduates is twice as high at almost 35 percent and the more educated Tunisians are, the more likely they are to be jobless, official statistics suggest, reflecting the lack of highly skilled jobs available.

Though unemployment averages little over 13 percent in the capital Tunis and along much of the coast, it rises to 20 percent in the border region where Karti lives. Unemployment runs at 28 percent in central provinces, where the revolution began and where rioting continues to break out regularly.

While the North African country has made a relatively smooth transition to democracy and has largely avoided the violence and wrangling that have destabilized nearby Egypt or Libya, analysts say the new Islamist-led government’s biggest challenge could come from the disenfranchised youths who set off the revolt.

“There is a process of growing polarization in Tunisian society and politics because there are several political, social and economic groups that feel left out of the process,” said Riccardo Fabiani, London-based North Africa analyst at Eurasia, a political risk consultancy.

“There are Salafi (Islamists) but also populations in inland regions, non-unionized workers or unemployed youths ... who don’t feel represented in the new system and resort to violence.”


At a mine in the arid centre of Tunisia, conveyor belts tip phosphate onto heaps, ready for eventual export. But the train that transports the earth has been paralyzed on and off for a year by protesters demanding that state-owned Gafsa Phospate Company, the region’s biggest employer, provide them with jobs.

Mountains of phosphate pile up with nowhere to go, robbing Tunisia of a key source of income at a time of record global prices. The company has pledged to recruit hundreds more locals since the revolution, but each recruitment drive only prompts new riots by the thousands of applicants who don’t make the cut.

The government says it cannot provide jobs to all who apply or the firm will go out of business, but is mindful that the mining basin was the epicenter of a 2008 uprising that exposed deep discontent and was a harbinger of the revolution to come.

Similar complaints plague the education sector, with thousands of graduates competing for the limited number of state positions that come up each year. Some 85,000 students enrolled in higher education in 2010/11, and their numbers have risen gradually in recent years, along with their expectations on graduation.

“I graduated in 2006. I’ve taken three national tests, reached the final stage and not succeeded,” said Hussein Jouini, who moved to Tunis from the southeastern town of Gabes this year to take up an informal job teaching religious studies, which he says provides a low and unsteady income.

“We are 13 people in my family and I’m the only one with a diploma ... I should get a public sector job. My sisters need my help to get married, with wedding or dress costs, but I can’t (contribute).”

Economists say the problems facing Tunisia’s labor market are structural and will take years to untangle.

Tunisians are among the best educated people in North Africa - almost 80 percent of Tunisian adults are literate compared to 66 percent in Egypt and 56 percent in Morocco, according to UNICEF. But the economy has tended to create less-skilled and lower-paid industrial work, or seasonal farming and tourism jobs shunned by graduates who expect stable and better-paid work in the public sector or white collar jobs in big private firms.

It will take years to steer Tunisians towards more vocational courses or to push the economy higher up the value chain, creating the high-earning professional jobs they want.

There is also a tendency for Tunisians to shun private sector employment in favor of stable public sector jobs, but stiff competition prompts accusations that only those with connections secure places, economists say.

The government, whose payroll is already bloated, has promised to create 25,000 public sector jobs this year and to employ the many hundreds wounded in the revolt and one relative of each of more than 300 people killed. It has also announced plans to develop impoverished areas, improve housing quality and build roads to more remote regions, which it hopes will dampen anger in the country’s long-marginalized interior.

But it is struggling to do more without pushing the budget deficit above its 2012 target of 6.6 percent of GDP and has called on unions to end continuing industrial action, mostly against pay and benefits, which it says is undermining efforts to boost growth and create jobs.

Tunisia has secured cheap bilateral loans from Qatar, Turkey and Libya and U.S. guarantees that will help it to borrow more cheaply. But the economic crisis in its main trade partner Europe, destination for 18 billion dinars ($11.2 billion) of exports in 2010, is hampering efforts to revive the economy.

“Socioeconomic unrest is one of their biggest challenges ... I don’t see, without significant outside help, how they can make rapid progress,” said Gala Riani, head of Middle East and North Africa analysis at Control Risks in London.

“This means that we will see socio-economic unrest in central areas for some time to come.”

In Sidi Bouzid, the central town where street seller Mohammed Bouazizi set himself alight on December 17, 2010, triggering the Arab Spring, cafes are filled on a Thursday morning with working-age men sipping tea and watching the world go by.

Away from the centre of town, roads are potholed and jobs scarce. The region has not seen the overhaul some had hoped for.

Nabil Massouiri Ben Mabrouk made the 3 1/2-hour journey from Sidi Bouzid to the capital this month to take part in a sit-in by unemployed graduates outside government offices.

In the months following the revolution, the government launched a scheme offering graduate jobseekers benefits of 200 dinars ($125) a month for up to a year. For Ben Mabrouk, that year is up and he has yet to find a job, putting him back in the same situation he faced before the uprising.

“I don’t work. If you apply for a low-paid job they don’t take you because you have a degree, so you have to work for yourself. I’ve worked as a construction laborer, for instance,” said Ben Mabrouk, who graduated in earth sciences in 2006.

“It is not that the goals of the revolution have not been achieved, they have not even begun to address them ... The policies are the same. The politicians are thinking about their seats and the media does not care.”

Writing by Lin Noueihed; Editing by Susan Fenton