Photo: Karim Zakhour

Life in waiting: young people in post-revolution Tunisia

The revolution in 2011 swept away repression, but the young men hanging around the cafés are still waiting for their daily lives to change. NAI guest researcher Karim Zakhour is investigating their strategies for building a future in the remote parts of Tunisia.

Observers often describe the Tunisian revolution as the only successful example of the Arab spring, a democratic breakthrough. The transition process has been extensively analysed, with a focus on central political actors and institutions.

For his PhD project at Stockholm University, Zakhour is instead investigating state-society dynamics from a local perspective, interviewing young people in marginalised and peripheral areas.

“Their perception of the revolution is much more critical than I’d expected - in different ways, their expectations have not been fulfilled. Some even compare Tunisia to the chaotic Syria”, says Zakhour.

Photo: Mats Hellmark

Central to the interviewees’ experience is the difficulty in finding a job that would enable them to attain social dignity and a meaningful future. They hang around the cafés, drinking coffee and smoking day after day, still dependent on their parents for a living. But their waiting is not a passive process.

“The formal political level is a disappointment to them, even though some are active in political parties. Many are very much engaged in other forms of activism and civil society. There is a lot of cultural activity such as poetry, art, graffiti and hip-hop”, observes Zakhour.

Networks are formed at the cafés and different strategies for coping with the situation are always on the agenda: odd jobs, smuggling, migration to Europe.

“Tunisia is the country from which the largest number of young men have left to fight for the Islamic State. Everyone knows someone who has gone. This can also be regarded as an expression of disappointment and anger about the lack of development”, Zakhour notes.

Unemployment figures are actually highest among young people with a university education, an added source of frustration. It is easier finding work in the informal sector.

The young men that Zakhour has interviewed live in the towns of Kasserine and Gafsa 300-350 kilometers southwest of Tunis. The revolution that toppled the regime of Zine el Abadine Ben Ali started in these areas, but they remain marginalised and have not reaped any benefits economically. Poverty has in fact become worse, or at least more obvious because people can talk about it more openly today.

For the first time, people are able to express themselves freely

“The revolution made an important change in the sense that the Mukhabarat state - the violent repression and domination of the security forces - is gone. For the first time, people are able to express themselves freely. There is much less fear.”

Zakhour is about half way through his ethnographic field studies. The focus of his research is on exploring the relationship between citizens and state when an authoritarian regime is overthrown, but also on the unevenness of democratisation between different regions.

“How success, transition and democracy are understood locally, or rather, how they are lived, and how such everyday experiences reflect the continuity and change in the relationship between a state and its citizens are the focus of the research”, says Zakhour.

One observation he has made is that although the young men were rebelling against the repressive state, they are also demanding that the state should take on more responsibilities in areas such as social justice, education and infrastructure.

There was a positive change in the public perception of young people in connection with the revolution. But today they are again seen as more of a problem. In national discourse and academic research, they are often mentioned in connection with unemployment, loitering, drugs, alcohol and jihadist recruitment.

“Rather than treating youth as a problem, I look at their waiting in a context broadly understood as neoliberal: the state is unable or unwilling to provide youths with respectable livelihoods. Waiting is their main mode of existence, and it signals a profound shift in social norms and values” Zakhour concludes.

Text: Mats Hellmark

Photo: Karim Zakhour

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