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Youth and Revolution in Tunisia

Youth and Revolution in Tunisia

by Alcinda Honwana

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The uprising in Tunisia in late 2010 and early 2011 has come to be seen as the first true revolution of the 21st Century, one that kick-started the series of upheavals across the region now known as the Arab Spring. Alcinda Honwana goes beyond superficial accounts of what occurred to explore the defining role of the country's youth, and in particular the


The uprising in Tunisia in late 2010 and early 2011 has come to be seen as the first true revolution of the 21st Century, one that kick-started the series of upheavals across the region now known as the Arab Spring. Alcinda Honwana goes beyond superficial accounts of what occurred to explore the defining role of the country's youth, and in particular the cyberactivist.

Drawing on fresh, first-person testimony from those who shaped events, the book describes in detail the experiences of young activists through the 29 days of the revolution and the challenges they encountered after the fall of the regime and the dismantling of the ruling party. Now, as old and newly established political forces are moving into the political void created by Ben Ali's departure, tensions between the older and younger generations are sharpening.

An essential account of an event that has inspired the world, and its potential repercussions for the Middle East, Africa and beyond.

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Zed Books
Publication date:
African Arguments Series
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

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Youth and revolution in Tunisia

By Alcinda Honwana

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2013 Alcinda Honwana
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78032-464-7



Tunisia was a fertile ground for the spread of this massive youth-led uprising. Social and economic malaise in the country had been deepening over the previous two decades. The self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi ignited protests that expressed longstanding discontent with structural problems and governmental policies that underpinned Ben Ali's dictatorship. Frustrations among Tunisians from various groups and walks of life stemmed not only from economic hardship and high levels of unemployment but also from suffocating repression, the absence of political freedoms, and a ruling family that was increasingly condemned as a kleptocracy.

This chapter addresses five critical areas of disconnect between the Tunisian authorities and the population: unequal regional development and massive youth unemployment; corruption and nepotism; political repression and lack of civil liberties; the shortcomings of women's rights reforms; and the repression of Islam and the quest for religious identity. The chapter argues that these disconnects, which cut across wide sectors and social strata, from the disenfranchised poor through the middle class to the business elite, were crucial to the emergence of the broad national coalition that led to the demise of the dictatorial regime in Tunisia.

Unequal regional development and massive unemployment

Regional imbalances in the Tunisian economy appeared during the regime of Habib Bourguiba, the first president of post-independence Tunisia who led the country between 1956 and 1987. Initially, Bourguiba's economic development strategy was marked by socialist redistributive policies. His prime minister, Ahmed Ben Salah, launched state-led programmes for agricultural cooperatives and public sector industrialisation, but the socialist experiment was short-lived because of opposition within Bourguiba's ruling coalition (Murphy 1999). The economic hardship and malaise that ensued in the 1970s, with weak agricultural performance and high urban unemployment, led to increased migration to Europe. In January 1978, the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT) organised a nationwide general strike to protest against the government's economic policies. Over 50 demonstrators were killed and 200 trade union officials, including UGTT secretary-general Habib Achour, were arrested.

In the 1980s, the economy continued to perform poorly, and in 1984 the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forced the government to raise the price of bread and semolina (wheat flour), causing severe hardship and a wave of food riots. In 1987, following a bloodless coup, Bourguiba was overthrown and replaced by his prime minister, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The new president and his government embarked on a series of economic reforms aimed at generating economic growth and accelerating development. According to Tunisian economist Hakim Ben Hammouda, reforms were undertaken in three main directions. First, the government sought to reduce its deficits and curb inflation. Second, it privatised public enterprises; between 1987 and 2008, the sale of over 200 enterprises netted the state almost 6.1 billion Tunisian dinars (about US$3.8 billion). The corruption and nepotism that marked this process created many problems, however. The third reform was the liberalisation of the economy through free trade agreements aimed at helping local enterprises cope with increased competition from foreign companies. In July 1995, the government signed a free trade agreement with the European Union that not only covered economic issues but also included political, social and cultural aspects of the relationship between Tunisia and its neighbours across the Mediterranean (Ben Hammouda 2012).

As various Tunisian economists have pointed out, this programme of reforms lifted the country out of the economic crisis of the late 1980s and stimulated economic growth. Yet the dynamics of market-led growth generated serious regional economic imbalances. The structural adjustment policies required a further opening of the Tunisian economy to foreign goods, investment and finance, leaving Tunisian society with greater levels of economic stratification and a proliferation of low-skilled jobs. An increased number of Tunisians were living in poverty and unable to meet their economic needs or achieve their life aspirations.

The neoliberal economic policies of Ben Ali's regime led to a pattern of uneven economic development that has marginalised the central, western and southern desert regions and has concentrated wealth – i.e. investment in tourism and infrastructure – in the northern and eastern coastal regions of the country. For example, the road network centres on Tunis and serves the coast, while the interior remains more isolated.

The decline in farming and mining in the inland regions has contributed to widening regional inequalities. By 1999, about 25 per cent of the country's labour force was engaged in agriculture, which accounted for 12 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), but fertile land was limited to the north, where cereals, olives, fruit, grapes and vegetables are produced. In the central-west and southern regions, desert farming was and continues to be precarious; with neither irrigation nor soil conservation systems, yields are very low. Endemic poverty gives rise to despair. Although nationally the poverty rate is estimated at just 10 per cent, in the central and western regions close to 30 per cent of the population live in poverty (Hibou et al. 2011). Entrepreneurial activity is also highly unequal. Rather than making public investments in the inland regions, the government offered tax breaks and incentives to private businesses in the vain hope that this would encourage local development.

Tunisians in the central, western and southern desert regions were angered by the government's neglect. They lacked such basic social infrastructure as schools, hospitals and roads. With little public and no private investment there, few jobs were created. 'There are no industries that provide jobs for people in this region. There is only the paper factory, where my father and my uncles worked. But the government did not build new factories; that's why there are no jobs for our generation,' said Amin, a 28-year-old man in Kasserine. The Société Nationale de Cellulose et de Papier Alfa, established in Kasserine in 1963, is the sole industry and the main employer in the region. For half a century, however, the paper mill has been poisoning the adjacent communities with the chlorine it releases. The government has never addressed the problem, leaving Kasserinians to suffer from illnesses caused by the factory's pollution.

Explaining some of the reasons for his discontent, 27-year-old Khaled stressed that:

Ben Ali's government has not invested in Kasserine at all. We are one of the poorest regions in the country. More than 80 per cent of what we consume here comes from Algeria, not from Tunisia. You see those jerry cans of fuel that are being sold in the streets? That is fuel from Algeria, which is much cheaper than Tunisian fuel. Here everything comes from Algeria: food, clothes, furniture, everything ... We survive because of Algeria, not because of the Tunisian government.

Samir Rabhi, a college teacher in Kasserine, contended that this underdevelopment was deliberate:

Kasserine is an agricultural region but it has been neglected by the Tunisian government. No investments have been made in this region and, even worse, government policies were designed to impoverish the inland regions. The regional imbalances did not happen by default, but rather by design.

To deal with steady declines in state revenue, the government implemented unpopular programmes aimed at reducing subsidies on commodities including food. Popular dissatisfaction in the inland regions was widespread. Major revolts began in Gafsa, Sidi Bouzid and other economically marginalised regions. TheJanuary 2008 protests in Redeyef, Gafsa, constituted one of the first open demonstrations against Ben Ali's regime. Protests were led by unemployed non-union workers and students who were unable to get jobs in the phosphate mines. The miners' union and the ruling political party (Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique or RCD) cooperated with the Gafsa Phosphate Company, the major employer, in limiting and controlling access to jobs in the mines. Protesters called for an end to unfair and fraudulent recruitment practices (Allal 2010). Supported by miners' widows and families, they also demanded better living conditions. The unrest in Redeyef quickly expanded to other mining areas and paralysed the industry for several months (Amnesty International 2009). That same year, unemployed youths staged protests in Skhira in the south-east and in Ben Gardane.

The government's neoliberal economic approach resulted in lower wages and job insecurity and failed to generate enough jobs to employ young people entering the workforce. Unemployment skyrocketed among university graduates during the 1990s. The global economic downturn had especially serious effects on the Tunisian economy between 2007 and 2009: rates of unemployment and underemployment, which were already high, soared, particularly in the tourism industry. Each year about 140,000 people are ready to enter the labour market while only 60,000 to 65,000 jobs are created, mainly in Greater Tunis and the coastal regions. Among these 140,000 new jobseekers, 70,000 are university graduates, 40,000 have completed professional training, and 30,000 have no training (Hibou et al. 2011). In 2009, the unemployment rate among people aged 18 to 29 rose to nearly 30 per cent, while it reached 45 per cent among university graduates (World Bank 2008). Yet even these figures underestimate the extent of youth unemployment, as they do not include many of those who, after failing to find work, enter the informal economy or migrate to Europe. Young women, who comprise almost half of new jobseekers, have more trouble finding jobs than young men.

Reforms in the education system have made higher education more accessible to Tunisians. The state guarantees free higher education to anyone passing the baccalaureate or high school diploma. Largely as a result of this policy, the number of Tunisians graduating from college has tripled in a single decade, producing many more graduates than the labour market is able to absorb. According to a World Bank study, in 2008 unemployment affected graduates in all fields. Among those with technical and master's degrees, the unemployment rate was about 50 per cent. Graduates with professional degrees were the most vulnerable, while those from higher institutes of technology had a slight advantage. University graduates in management, finance and law had higher rates of unemployment, reaching 68 per cent for those with master's degrees in legal studies. Among the technical fields, graduates in specialties linked to agriculture and agribusiness also had much higher unemployment rates, around 70 per cent for technicians and over 31 per cent for engineers (ibid.). The World Bank's study stressed the fact that graduates lacked the skills required for lower-level jobs.

The upward trend in the unemployment rate of university graduates in Tunisia was viewed by the African Development Bank as resulting from a mismatch between the demand for and supply of skilled workers, as well as from the relatively low quality of training received by many graduates (African Development Bank 2011). Tunisian economists have criticised the education policies of the last two decades for focusing on quantity rather than quality. Nabil Mâalel, from the ESSEC at the University of Tunis, and Zouhair El Kadhi, from the Institute of Qualitative Studies at the Ministry of Development, have stated that Tunisia has always complied with the advice of the IMF. El Kadhi explained:

The government was often more preoccupied with pleasing the international institutions rather than looking at what was good and effective for the country, and the education policy was one such instance. We suddenly started producing an excess of graduates, there were graduate schools everywhere, some of the fields of study were quite atypical, and there were no links between the educational system's outputs and labour market needs.

Mâalel added that there was no foreign investment in the private sector to help absorb this trained labour force, despite the attractive financial incentives offered by the government. In Tunisia, the state has been the main employer and the public sector has been the only avenue for secure work.

Entrepreneurial schemes to support unemployed graduates to develop their own businesses were tentative and badly managed. The government established the Banque Tunisienne de Solidarité (BTS) in the mid-1990s to provide business loans to young graduates, facilitate the development of small enterprises and expand employment. The National Employment Fund, set up in 2000 to deal specifically with graduate unemployment (Kallander 2011), encouraged graduates to apply for microcredit at very competitive interest rates (Hibou 2006).

According to French sociologist Béatrice Hibou, however, the BTS quickly became an instrument of political control, with credit lines being offered to members of the ruling party, the RCD, often without any expectation of a good return. Many of the young people I interviewed found the BTS scheme corrupt. Nassir, a 31-year-old man from Tozeur, pointed out that the BTS 'could have been a good thing, but these BTS funds had strings attached ... because you had to be from the RCD, or be willing to sign up to the RCD, in order to benefit from it'. Hibou's analysis concurred with the young man's views, emphasising that 'young people are reluctant to join the party ... which suggests that, more than disaffection, there is a real rejection of that framework, which they feel is heavy, outdated and ineffective for obtaining full employment' (ibid.: 233). The National Employment Fund, too, became an instrument of the state used for political control and clientelism. Access to public and private sector jobs became tightly controlled by those connected to the regime (Goldstone 2011; Kallander 2011; Paciello 2011).

International migration was one route out of this situation, especially in the most impoverished regions. In the past decades, Tunisia has witnessed a steady exodus driven by the limited opportunities and constraints people face at home. The Tunisian National Institute for Statistics reported that in 2009 there were about 1 million Tunisian migrants living abroad (around 10 per cent of the total population), the vast majority in Europe. Young Tunisians constitute the largest proportion of these migrants. However, the tightening of border controls in Europe due to the weakening economic situation has made migration more difficult in the last decade.

Tunisian economists Nabil Mâalel and Zouhair El Kadhi have attested that Tunisia's development model was quite popular with the World Bank and the IMF. These institutions praised Tunisia's development model because it encouraged foreign investment, created a flexible workforce and lowered taxes on businesses. Indeed, the World Bank, IMF and European Union propagated the image of the Tunisian 'economic miracle' (Hibou et al. 2011). Mâalel has emphasised that, while in the past few decades the Tunisian economy has grown substantially enough to generate considerable wealth and produce a positive macroeconomic performance (see also Ben Romdhane 2011), the fruits of that growth have not been distributed evenly across the regions.

Although young people saw the expansion of the higher education system as a positive development that created tremendous opportunities, massive unemployment and underemployment have foreclosed those opportunities. The achievement of a higher degree raised expectations among a generation that is more closely connected to the global world through television, cellular telephony and the internet. Earning degrees that led nowhere shattered this generation's dreams of getting better jobs than those held by their parents and of enjoying the advances and commodities of the modern world. In reality, many have ended up financially worse off than their parents despite their academic and professional training. These socioeconomic disconnects, especially unequal regional development, massive unemployment and difficulties in labour migration and entrepreneurship, have been at the heart of young people's discontent and were central issues in the youth uprisings of December 2010 and January 2011.

Corruption and nepotism

The notorious excesses of the authoritarian regime in Tunisia played a major role in exacerbating popular dissatisfaction and, in particular, alienating the middle class. Tunisians have long been aware of state repression, but in the last few years they have become more conscious of the disproportionate power and influence wielded by a tiny elite concentrated on Tunisia's first family. The publication of La Régente de Carthage: Main Basse sur la Tunisie (The Regent of Carthage: A stranglehold on Tunisia) by investigative journalists Nicolas Beau and Catherine Graciet in France in 2009 and the release of the WikiLeaks memos in 2010 exposed the magnitude of the ruling family's plundering of the country's resources. Despite government bans, both the book and the memos were widely circulated among Tunisians.


Excerpted from Youth and revolution in Tunisia by Alcinda Honwana. Copyright © 2013 Alcinda Honwana. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Meet the Author

Alcinda Honwana has been Professor and Chair in International Development at the Open University (OU) in the UK, where she also directed the International Development Centre (IDC), a research program focused on issues of international human development. Before joining the OU, Honwana worked for the Social Science Research Council in New York, where she directed the Children and Armed Conflict Program and the Africa Program. She lectured Anthropology at the Universities Eduardo Mondlane in Maputo, University of Cape Town in South Africa, and the New School for Social Research in New York. Honwana also worked for the United Nations as research coordinator in the Office of the Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict. Honwana was awarded the prestigious Prince Claus Chair for Development and Equity by the Institute of Social Studies and University of Utrecht in 2008. She served as a member of the Board of the Council for the Development of Social Research in Africa (CODESRIA) and on the Board of Directors of the African Studies Association (ASA) in the USA.

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