A man soaks his feet in a natural water spring in the outskirts of Gafsa, the capital of the homonym governorate. This mining area suffers of water shortages also due to the production of phosphate.
Long Life Revolution
On the 10th anniversary of the uprising, Tunisia is still facing marginalization of the interior of the country and youth unemployment.
by Nicola Lanciotti
Sitting next to a whitewashed church from colonial times, under the strong sun of the neighbouring desert, Amara Lakhel admits: “There have been and there still are many problems in this area, but water is definitely one of the biggest issues we have been facing for years and nothing has been done to sort it yet.”
Amara lived all his life in the village of Metlaoui, in the governorate of Gafsa, in Central-West Tunisia, where reserves of phosphate were discovered by the French in 1885. He worked in the mining business for 35 years and is now retired.
The entrance of an abandoned mine in the mountains around Metlaoui. In this area bordering Algeria, the French discovered reserves of phosphate in 1885.
Among the reasons that led to the 2010-2011 revolution, was the regional economic disparity: many parts of the country outside the capital, Tunis, and the touristic coastal areas were living in a state of abandonment with little proper infrastructure, poor living conditions and almost no sign of development; Gafsa was one of those.
Driving to this region, in the middle of the country, from the bustling and often hectic Tunis, one can have an idea of how the interior of Tunisia still runs at a slower pace: after 70 kilometres on the A1 (the highway that follows the coastline to Gabes in the south), the remaining 300km are on a two-lane regular road that runs through a sandy and dusty stretch of landscape leading to the Sahara Desert.
In the small villages that dot the way, farming and herding remain to be the main source of income for many, and the horse is still a valuable means of transportation.
Police are present at every roundabout but they are not bothered by the children selling bread on the roadside or the black-market petrol that is smuggled from neighbouring Libya and sold at a cheaper price under the harsh light of midday sun.
Here, on the mountains bordering Algeria, CPG, a state-owned company and the world’s 5th largest phosphate producer, extract the mineral that is then exported and sold as fertilizer.
Despite being an important source of income for the country, in the past 10 years, there have been very few investments to overcome many problems related to the mining industry.
A facility in the village of Metlaoui where phosphate is processed. Here the raw material is washed and the byproduct consist a toxic mineral soup.
“Due to the arid nature of the area” Amara continues, “water comes from limited underground resources. This water, which is used for both agriculture and drinking purposes, is also necessary in large quantities, for the industrial production of phosphate. The outcome is long periods of drought and water shortages, especially in the summer months.”
“So many people I know have died because of their job in the mines” Amara says, “not only during their working hours on site: many of them developed illnesses from being exposed to the processing of the mineral and slowly passed away.”
As well as being a rough and physically demanding job, working in the phosphate mines has another downside. The pollution caused by the processing of the mineral is toxic and results in many people both involved in the production, or only just living in the surrounding area, developing cancer. On the other hand, there is a lack of investment in the local health infrastructure which, across the entire governorate, is under-equipped to cope with the many cases of illness.
“On top of being one of the few employment opportunities for the people living in this area” Amara continues, “these natural resources are limited and they are diminishing year by year. From my experience, I assume that, at this pace, the extraction of the mineral could be over in about 50 years.”
Growing up in a place like this is limiting for the new generations that aim for a career in their homeland. There are no long-term projects that create alternative employment and most of the young people are either forced to move to the more developed areas of the country or, as frequently happens, to think of a future outside of Tunisia.
Safoine Kayel, a 22 year old student of electrical engineering, lives in the town of Gafsa, the capital of the homonym governorate.
While walking through the empty corridors of his former high school, now closed because of the COVID pandemic, he confesses: “this is where I made my best friends, they are the reason why I want to live my life here.”
Visiting the classrooms, in the complete silence of the empty building, only broken by the sound of our steps, he concludes: “I chose to study electrical engineering because I hoped that this education could guarantee me a future in my hometown. I am also willing to gain experience abroad but here in Gafsa, where my family and my best friends live, is where I hope to build my future.”
The frustration for the lack of employment and marginalization of this region, combined with the systemic corruption that characterised the regime, explains the feeling of dissatisfaction and exasperation that mobilised the people of the mining basin in 2008.
Here, in fact, the dictatorship had a taste of what was to come.
In January 2008, CPG announced they would hire 400 workers prioritising young people and those who had lost a family member in the mines. Many from the neighbouring villages applied.
When most of these positions were given instead to those with a political connection, the mining basin exploded in protest: thousands of people flocked into the streets to demonstrate against the corrupt system and their already precarious life conditions.
The regime put the whole region into a state of lockdown and immediately sent security forces that violently repressed the protests.
The historical re-birth
On January 14th, 2011, Tunisia turned the page of its history: after a month of protests against his power, President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, the dictator that ruled the country for 23 years, fled to Saudi Arabia.
During the regime, demonstrations and criticism against the government were strictly forbidden and, in some cases, perpetrators were punished with torture. People even had a name for the basement of the Ministry of the Interior, where the worst tortures were known to happen. They used to call it “behind the sun.”
However, the weeks that preceded the departure of Ben Ali were full of excitement for those who demanded a new beginning: Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the largest boulevard in the centre of Tunis, was a river of courage in those days. There was no more fear as thousands of people gathered under the roof of the same cause.
The video of Tunisian singer Emel Mathlouti, singing empowering words of freedom, liberation and fearless resistance in the midst of the protest, best describes the atmosphere of a life-changing moment for the Tunisian people. The song “Kelmti Horra” made Mathlouti an international star and, four years later, she was invited to perform at the Nobel Peace Prize concert.
A flag depicting former Tunisian dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, once used to decorate the streets, has been thrown in the rubbish.
The day before his departure, on January 13th, for the first time in 23 years Ben Ali used the Tunisian dialect (the only language that everybody could understand) instead of French. He pronounced his last, famous, desperate words in search of sympathy: “please forgive me, I made mistakes.” There was no way back: many layers of the Tunisian social structure had come together and were demanding equality, jobs, and better life conditions.
Ben Ali, during his dictatorship, built a system of power and corruption by which his family, his second wife Leila Trabelsi’s family and the people around them all benefitted. He shaped economic policies to enrich himself, and with the excuse of fighting Islamic extremism, he cruelly silenced any political dissent.
The drop that filled the cup, already pretty full of discontent by that time, was the self- immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor from Sidi Bouzid, a rural village in the middle of the country.
Bouazizi worked since the age of 10. His father, a worker in Libya, died of heart failure when he was 3 and he had to make a living to support his mother and his 6 siblings. At the age of 20, he dropped out of school to work full time selling fruit and vegetables on the streets of his village.
On December 17th, 2010, 26 year-old Bouazizi, had his weighing scale confiscated by the police for not having a work permit. Not only that; he was slapped right in the middle of the street by Feyda Hamdi, a female police officer.
In a conservative place like Sidi Bouzid, being slapped in the face, in public, by a woman, was deeply humiliating for a man.
After being targeted for years by local police and under the pressure of the debts he made to buy his wares, Bouazizi visited the governorate office to express his anger but he was bitterly dismissed. Less than 1 hour after the encounter with police, he bought a bottle of gasoline, returned to the front of the governorate building and, in an extreme sign of protest, set himself alight.
Numbers painted on the outside wall of a school. During elections, each number is assigned to a candidate.
Mohamed Bouazizi died on January 4th, 2011, after 18 days of agony. He could not know that his gesture would help pave the way to freedom for all Tunisians.
That was not only the spark that lit the fire of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia (named after the national flower), it was also the starting point for the uprising movements against totalitarian regimes in other countries of North Africa and in the Middle East that would become known as the Arab Spring.
Eventually, a new democracy was born in Tunisia: the first post-revolution elections were held on October 23rd, 2011. They resulted in a considerable success for those political parties that were making opposition to Ben Ali’s RCD party, especially the moderate Islamist Ennahda which amassed 37% of the vote.
Mostly young people gathering at a cafe. It is common, especially during Ramadan, to meet after dinner for an evening tea or shisha.
In 2010 almost half of the country was under the age of 35 and, among them, unemployment was widespread. Even those with an education were forced into different careers for the lack of job opportunities, or in the worst cases they were killing days in cafes.
Democracy, during the regime, was only a formality or a mere illusion. For some, it could have been expressed through a vote that was most likely manipulated by trusted people put in place by Ben Ali. After declaring himself President of Tunisia in 1987, he won re-elections every time with at least 90% of the preferences.
The economic conditions were dire and the value of freedom was an essential achievement for the young in order to project themselves into a brighter future.
The youth have been the engine of the protests that ousted the dictator: students, used to critical thinking, were essential for the movement to occur, the young Tunisian bloggers and anyone with a Facebook account that could repost the events filmed on mobile phones, were essential for the movements to spread, reach the capital city and eventually, international news outlets.
Today, the persistence of some of the issues that provoked their rise 10 years ago, mostly related to the lack of job opportunities, made some of them lose that drive and hope of the past.
“I dream of working in a chemistry lab” says Olfa Chalbia. “I am also willing to travel abroad if necessary, but I would like to find a job in my own country.”
Having graduated two years ago in industrial chemistry, Olfa has been in search of a position ever since. While unemployed, she volunteers as a project coordinator for an association that organises cultural events.
“It is difficult to get a job if you do not have anyone you know in the company you are applying for” she continues, “those with a connection are privileged, sometimes regardless of their experience and competence.”
The establishment of a democracy and later, in 2014, of a new constitution, did not change some of the old mechanisms. This created a feeling of dissatisfaction, especially among those with a higher education, for not being able to find their place in the future of their country.
Olfa though, as well as her peers, represent the living proof of an ongoing generational change. This generation, which grew up with the values of freedom and dignity, will eventually take over the country, whose foundation of civil rights was built 10 years ago.
While her friends listen in silent approval, she concludes “Life here is not easy at the moment, and freedom of speech itself is not enough to live.”