The struggle of Tunisian youth in a radical hotspot
Tunis - Ahmed Ouni is angry and seems desperate when he talks about his prospects as an unemployed young man in Douar Hicher, a working-class neighbourhood near Tunis from where dozens of radical Islamists have left to join battlefields in Iraq and Syria.
“I’m terribly afraid when I look at young people around me here and see they have no jobs and are unable to marry even when they have reached the age of 35 years and more,” said Ahmed, 26, who earned a technician’s diploma from a vocational training school after dropping out of high school.
Douar Hicher came into the spotlight as a radical Salafist stronghold when a young man from the neighbourhood, Hamza Maghraoui, was shown on an Islamic State (ISIS) video in February pushing Jordanian pilot and ISIS hostage Muath al-Kasasbeh into the cage where he was burned to death.
Tunisian gunmen trained in Libya and linked to ISIS and al-Qaeda have also hit closer to home, killing 22 people at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis in March and 38 tourists at the beach resort of Sousse in June.
Men seated at cafés in Douar Hicher, a few kilometres from the Bardo museum, talked about the news that Maghraoui had been killed in Syria and what drives someone to extremism.
“Finding a decent job for us here is almost impossible. It is a one-sided affair. I’m fighting to find stable work. But I failed to find it because people like us are treated by those in high positions in government like nothing, almost like rubbish,” said Ahmed.
He said while he knocked on the doors of numerous government offices for job to no avail, he worked as a cement mixer, bricklayer or a driver for construction sites.
“It is hard to work for about 15 dinars (about $7) a day. I must help ease the financial pain of my father who, as a retired military man, is providing for my four sisters who do not work,” said Ahmed.
He expressed conflicting feelings about the country and his countrymen.
“Sometimes, I loathe this place and the people living in it as I feel alone and abandoned by all those who could help,” said Ahmed before pausing.
“I love Tunisia but I hope that it would become a country which cares and pays attention to people at the bottom of the social rung,” he said.
The unemployment rate in Tunisia – about 15% — is among the highest in North Africa and university graduates are the hardest hit by joblessness.
Sabri Hamdi, a local leader of Nidaa Tounes, which dominates a four-party ruling coalition, paints a grim picture of life in Douar Hicher for young people.
“It can be described as the ground for hopelessness. There is not one inch of green land for the youth to relax or practice sports. No culture or sports facility for young people. There is only the café to sit and talk in the morning and afternoon,” said Sabri.
Sabri gave the example of a university graduate who works as a waiter to illustrate the hurdles faced by youth looking for jobs.
“After several attempts and thanks to the goodwill of several people, we found him a job as a waiter in a café at a petrol station. He has a high school diploma plus six years at university. ”
Sabri said dozens of young people joined ISIS for money or the belief their death in conflict zones might lend some meaning to their lives.
About 3,000 Tunisians are thought to be fighting in Syria and Iraq, the largest per capita contingent among all nationalities. According to the Tunisian government, in the two years prior to April 2015, it prevented more than 12,000 from leaving Tunisia to join jihadist groups.
A Libyan Justice Ministry spokesman recently estimated the number of Tunisians engaged with jihadist groups in Libya at more than 2,000.
Sabri said dire social and cultural conditions could be the breeding ground for Islamic radicalisation, drug addiction and crime.
“The youth population here are four groups: 30% are linked to drugs and crime; another 30% are attempting to sail illegally to Europe; and 30% are hovering around hard-line Salafists from where some are recruited to Daesh,” he said. Daesh is the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
“The remaining 10% are the exception. They are lucky to have good family conditions and to live decent lives.”