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Rural Tunisians Hope Revolt Brings Jobs, Opportunity

In Tunisia's capital, Tunis, many call the ouster of dictator Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali the "Jasmine Revolution." But in rural Tunisia, where the uprising began, they think of it as the jobs revolution.

Pent-up fury in the country's rural interior over endemic unemployment, and a long-standing sense of regional inequality, fueled the nationwide revolt. Protests in the capital by students and many from the country's middle classes played a key role in toppling the autocrat. But it all began — and casualties were by far the highest — in the rural hinterlands.

Now many hope the uprising brings about long-asked-for economic development and opportunity.

At a dingy, no-name cafe on the outskirts of Sidi Bouzid, the biggest challenge for rural Tunisia is on full display.

On a sunny weekday afternoon, dozens of young men, almost all in their 20s, sit around playing cards, sipping tea and smoking. A faded poster of Brooke Shields inexplicably hangs on the wall. Most of these men here have university degrees. They are all unemployed.

"We try all the time to find work in Sidi Bouzid," says Taoufik Hamdouni, 29.

Even those of us with degrees have to look for work in the tourist towns as laborers and such, and we get bossed around by people who aren't even educated.

He sits with his friends, smoking, as he does most every day. His hair is trimmed and neat. His shirt is pressed and clean as if he's dressed for a job interview that never seems to come. Hamdouni graduated from college nearly seven years ago with a civil engineering degree. He's been looking for work ever since.

Hamdouni has four brothers and three sisters. All have university degrees. Only one is employed, a brother who works as an elementary school teacher.

"Ben Ali was stupid because he was not interested in the center or south of the country," Hamdouni says. "We've been marginalized for a long, long time. You see the differences between the regions. Even those of us with degrees have to look for work in the tourist towns as laborers and such, and we get bossed around by people who aren't even educated."

Seething anger at a sense of regional neglect was exacerbated by widespread local corruption, says Hamdouni's friend Marwan Chokri. Local government and party officials would shake you down or ask for a kickback to get an interview, to get to the top of the list, to get a license — you name it, he says.

The 26-year-old searched outside Tunisia for work. But he couldn't come up with the $5,000 a job broker demanded. That's almost five months' pay for his schoolteacher father.

"I studied some 24 years, and afterwards all I get is the opportunity to go into the army as a simple soldier and get paid 250 dinars [per] month. It's nothing, and that is only with a connection to get you into the military!" he says.

The only impromptu entertainment in the cafe is an older man who stumbles in, his revolution seemingly from a bottle.

"There are a thousand thieves and everyone has a complaint about them," the man sings.

The rural riots that toppled the dictator began here when a street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, burned himself to death to protest what his family says was corruption, humiliation and economic pain. The high school dropout was scraping out a living selling fruit. His family here says he was repeatedly harassed and fined for not having his papers in order.

People walk in the street in Sidi Bouzid on Jan. 10.
Fethi Belaid / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
People walk in the street in Sidi Bouzid on Jan. 10.

Bouazizi's act quickly resonated in this impoverished city. Protests soon erupted that were not, at first, overtly political. The men here say the anger was over employment, corruption and the nagging sense that they had been abandoned for decades.

According to an official at Human Rights Watch, a preliminary investigation this week confirms that the city of Kasserine tops the list of places with the highest death tolls from the uprising so far, with 20 people killed. The interim government says in all at least 78 people died in the protests, most shot at by security forces. No group has yet independently verified that figure.

Ben Ali came from the Tunisian coast, so there was an added sense in the rural areas that the ousted dictator favored the coastal resort towns while people here got nothing.

A United Nations report estimates that the unemployment rate among Tunisia's rural young people is more than 25 percent. People here think the real rate is much higher.

The last time Tunisia saw internal bloodshed was during countrywide food riots in 1984. Then, as now, the issue began as an economic one and, like back then, the interior of the country was hardest hit.

"It really is about jobs for them," says Eric Goldstein, deputy director of Human Rights Watch for North Africa and the Middle East. "And resentment that people in other parts of the country seem to be part of this Tunisia that everyone talks of as being a middle-class country, educated, moderate, open to the world, while they are back there struggling every day."

An urgent issue — among the many that any new Tunisian government must face — is economic development in the rural hinterlands.

As one jobless man said at this Sidi Bouzid cafe — "Without jobs, the revolution will prove to be a failure."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.