Whether they are in Tataouine (Tunisia) or in El-Houceima (Morocco), young people are facing the same problems: long-term unemployment, endemic poverty and deliberate marginalization. Instead of trying to alleviate their deplorable living conditions, governments answer their protests either with repression or stop-gap measures aimed at calming down the mounting anger. In doing so, they are creating the conditions conducive to more instability and radicalization in the region.
In 2012, just a few months after the first free elections in the history Tunisia, when the conflict between “secularists” and “Islamists” over identity, culture, and Islam was at its peak, I noted at a panel hosted by the French Gabriel Péri Foundation and attended by several civil society organizations that the Tunisian uprising was not only motivated by a desire for democracy and freedom. Nor was it a response to religious repression and an identity crisis. Rather, it was at base a youth revolt against a regime that deployed oppression in order to loot the country, a regime that attempted to strangle politics, privatize the state and sideline society. The young people who had rejected Ben Ali’s speech of January 13, 2011, on the eve of his leaving the country, were less interested in the political concessions he made than in realizing their aspirations for social justice, regional equity, and jobs. Well, more than six years after the uprising, we are not out of the woods yet.
According to the World Bank, two out of five youths under the age of 30, that is a third of the working population, do not have jobs.
Interior regions that sparked the revolt by the end of 2010 are still marginalized, suffering poverty, lack of infrastructure and joblessness. For instance, unemployment rate there is about twice the national average: 30% to 15.5%. To add insult to injury, most of those who are unemployed are university graduates.
Speaking about the youth in the Arab world, the Economist said that their life is “a miserable struggle against poverty at home, emigration or, in extreme cases, Jihad.” That is certainly true for the Maghreb region.
Fortunately, most young people in Tunisia choose not to fall in the snare of despair yet. They are struggling peacefully to get" their right for jobs" and for “positive discrimination” enshrined in the 2014 Constitution, though successive governments have so far failed to adhere to those provisions.
Tataouine, a southern marginalized region, is a case in point. The social protests began in March 2017, when hundreds of young unemployed people, most of them high school graduates, started a sit-in near El Kamour, an oil and gas station. They have been supported, almost on a daily basis, by demonstrations in the city. The carrot and stick approach of the government, swinging between repression and dialogue, has contributed to more radicalization of the demands. Violent clashes with the security forces resulted in the death of Anouar Skrefi, who was run over by a National Guard vehicle.
The same goes for El Houceima, in Morocco. Since October 28, 2016, date of the death of Mouhcine Fikri, a fishmonger who was crushed by a dump truck, while trying to get back his confiscated fish, the inhabitants of the city, located in one of the most marginalized areas in Morocco, have been holding protests. Following the arrest of the leaders of the movement, protests could reach other marginalized regions of the kingdom, which could threaten the stability of the country.
Like the self-immolation of Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid, “The martyrdom of Mouhcine Fikri, which was the consequence of years of the same state policy, was the last straw,” says Nasser Zefzefi, a prominent leader of the movement.
In addition to long time exclusion from development, both the Tunisian and Moroccan protests show striking similarities in organization, structure and prospects:
They ask for reforms rather than a revolution. According to AFP, the demands in El-Houciema revolve around “jobs, roads, universities, hospitals and investment.” Says Zefzefi: “We are not asking for anything exceptional-Just the rehabilitation of our region.”
Idem for Tataouine: a quota for jobs at the oil company, more jobs in an environmental agency, investments to boost development in the region…
No leading political parties involved: the sit-inners in Tataouine refused involvement with political parties or visits from political leaders. To steer clear of partisanship, protesters were “not allowed to discuss politics in their sit-in tents.”
Similarly, the report issued by the Civil Initiative for the Rif, a collective of Moroccan human rights defenders and intellectuals, stated that the protests in the Rif were spontaneous and had nothing to do with political parties or trade unions.
Contrary to allegations made in some politician declarations and some media biased coverage, there seem to be no regionalist or separatist motives. In El Kamour, Tataouine, the sit-in was lifted and oil production resumed as soon as an agreement had been signed with the government.
In conclusion, it seems that politicians, whether in the government or in the opposition, failed to understand the changes that social movements have undergone. These informal groups assembled locally around straightforward and specific demands do not believe in the efficiency of political parties. Sometimes, there is even mistrust towards all politicians (right or left), considered, rightly or wrongly, to be part of the problem rather the solution, as they are “too pragmatic, electoralist and power-hungry.”
Also, they believe they don’t need “ready-made” leaders, insisting on the horizontal dimension in the relationship between all protesters. This doesn’t mean that new leadership does not emerge through action. The question is: how far would these movements go to establish social Justice, cherished by all of us?
Messaoud Romdhani is a Founding member of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, member of the Executive Bureau of Euromed Rights.