As the Islamic State and the ongoing humanitarian crisis resulting from the Syrian Civil War continue to hold the Western world’s attention, recent protests in the Tunisian Governorate of Kasserine reveal underlying discontent in a country championed as the only “functioning democracy” to emerge from the Arab Spring.
On January 16, almost exactly five years after Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in Ben Arous, Tunisia and set in motion the protests that would become known as the Arab Spring, Ridha Yahyaoui committed suicide by climbing an electrical pole to protest the Tunisian government’s corruption and failure to combat unemployment. Yahyaoui, one of the many unemployed college graduates in Kasserine, had found out that his name was arbitrarily removed from the list of unemployed applicants for Civil Service positions, his last hope for finding a job. He then climbed an electrical pole, and was electrocuted, with protests erupting later that day.
The protests have continued since then, escalating to the point that the government issued a nighttime curfew for the region on January 22nd, and only lifted it on February 4th. While the curfew has been lifted, the protests continue, with a small group sewing their mouths shut in a hunger strike, threatening suicide if the government does not commit to creating new jobs. Already, several of these protesters are in critical condition, and Ridha’s brother Mahrez unsuccessfully attempted suicide on March 2nd.
That Yahyaoui’s suicide resembles Bouazizi’s, and that protesters have taken up similarly drastic measures, speaks to the similarity between conditions in Tunisia today and those in 2010. While the Revolution ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, led to democratic elections, and garnered a Nobel Prize for the National Dialogue Quartet (four organization representing labour, human rights, law, and industry that was central in establishing a pluralistic democracy), the social reality of the country has remained stagnant and has even regressed in some significant ways. Tunisia dropped from 59 in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index to 76 in their 2015 report. Nationwide unemployment remains above 15 percent, and Kasserine surpasses that at 26 percent. The citizens of Kasserine view this discrepancy as part of the Tunisian government’s discrimination against the interior of the country. Indeed, the vast majority of aid money distribution and development projects take place along the coastal rim of Tunisia, with little going to interior provinces. For many in Kasserine, the only evidence of the government’s presence are the increasingly onerous checkpoints searching for Islamists.
Tunisian scholar and professor at L’Institut National du Patrimone Larmine Bouazizi, in a recent interview with Al Jazeera, echoed the sentiment that the Revolution had failed to deliver meaningful change to many Tunisians. He notes that, “While political progress is being made slowly, however, what the political elite failed to understand, deliberately or not, is that the political progress was made at the expense of the social question of the population.” For many, the abstract benefits of free speech and open elections matter little when the reality is unemployment and crumbling infrastructure.
The future of the protests in Kasserine remains uncertain and could create significant unrest in the country. So far, President Essebsi has been extremely cautious in handling the protests, wary of the backlash that occurred against Ben Ali’s violent attempts to suppress the 2010 protests. Last week, Minister of Finance Slim Chaker visited Kasserine to announce the construction of a new Customs headquarters and promised the delivery of new Customs equipment. Chaker’s visit served in part as a positive symbol that Tunis has not forgotten its inland provinces, however abandoned Kasserine may feel. On the other hand, Minister Chaker’s visit may well raise more resentment than pro-government feelings. In the frontier areas of Tunisia, smuggling constitutes a substantial part of the local economy, and Chaker’s promises directly target the source of income for many residents of Kasserine, particularly young men in the informal economy most prone to political extremism. Additionally, during his visit, Chaker pardoned the actions of a local Customs agent who shot and killed a smuggler in March, which stands to cause an escalation in the Custom agents’ use of force, and further heighten animosity between the central government and locals.
For many Tunisians, this anti-government sentiment has remained essentially constant; the only change that followed the Revolution was the dashing of hopes, pushing many towards radicalization. In his New Yorker piece Exporting Jihad, George Packer writes, “Democracy didn’t turn Tunisian youths into jihadis, but it gave them the freedom to act on their unhappiness. By raising and then frustrating expectations, the revolution created conditions for radicalization to thrive.” The public disillusionment that drives the protests also attracts the promoters of radical Salafi jihad, promoters who in turn prey upon angry, unemployed young men. The Soufan Group reports that as of October 2015, over 6000 Tunisians have travelled to Syria to fight with extremist groups, a number more than double that of the next-highest country, Saudi Arabia. Many more have also travelled to Libya, and in November the Tunisian government closed that national border.
While the flow of foreign fighters is a nationwide problem, Kasserine in particular seems to be a target for increased extremist presence. Inland from the coast, and far west of the Libyan border, Kasserine has remained comparatively, though not completely, free of radicalism until recently. On March 29, a skirmish between Tunisian Army soldiers and militants linked to ISIS occurred on the border of the Kasserine Governorate, in the town of Bou Chebka, killing four soldiers. The next evening, a National Guard patrol was ambushed by 15 militants, with one soldier injured. And on April 3, a woman was killed by militants in Sbiba, 25 miles northeast of the city of Kasserine, prompting a large Army campaign throughout the governante.
The economic strife and political discontent within Kasserine, particularly the movements toward more extreme action, will pose a grave challenge to the governorate and potentially the whole of Tunisia. For Tunisia’s new government to fulfil the promise of the 2011 Revolution beyond just the elections, it will have to balance the financial interests of Tunis and the coast with its inland regions, not just for the economic benefits that these phosphate-rich regions can provide, but to push back against the radicalism that will decide the stability of Tunisia’s future.
 Ibid. p. 16.