TUNISIA: Inequality, unemployment as Ben Ali leaves

Blighted by unemployment, inequalities and a higher education system ill-matched to the job market, Tunisia is examined by the French newspaper Le Monde. In a supplement devoted to the country following the departure of President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, the paper also interviews academic Khadija Mohsen-Finan on other problems faced by young Tunisians and talks to four students who intended to stay on in France, but are considering returning home now circumstances have changed.

As Ben Ali quit the political scene amid growing nationwide protests, he left a country in which 60% of the 10 million inhabitants are aged under 30, a third of whom are unemployed.

Setting the Tunisian economic scene, Monde journalist Florence Beaugé writes that the years of Ben Ali, who came to power in 1987, had been presented as a model of economic development in the Mediterranean basin, with 6% pre-crisis annual growth and a large middle class. It was favoured by international and Western organisations, and catered for six million tourists a year.

But Hassine Dimassi, an economist and lecturer at Sousse University - who resigned from the government of national unity set up after Ben Ali's downfall - told Beaugé: "The problem with Tunisia is not creation of wealth, for that is there; but the division of this wealth."

Regional development is very unequal, writes Beaugé. While the coast has generated employment, especially in tourism, the rural centre-west of the country, where the recent revolts started, is economically marginalised, with no jobs. "The rate of poverty is four times higher than in Tunisia as a whole (12.8% against 3.8%)."

Further south, in Gafsa, where a big protest movement took place in 2008, the number of workers is only a quarter of what it was before mechanisation of the phosphate mines 30 years ago. "The result is a massive and accelerating displacement of the population from the interior towards the coastal zones and big towns...with all the problems such migration gives rise to," writes Beaugé.

There is further inequality within the population, with an unemployment rate of 30% among the under-30s, the highest in the Maghreb. And nor has higher education guaranteed work.

"Officially there are 130,000 unemployed graduates," Dimassi told Beaugé. "I say there are about 300,000, which is enormous considering the size of the population. The international crisis takes the blame, though the failure is due to the incapacity of our education system to adapt to the job market."

The young had for years been steered towards oversubscribed studies such as humanities, management and law, whereas they should have been directed towards technology, computer science or biology, said Dimassi.

Every year 60,000 new graduates arrive in the job market, though the Tunisian economy cannot absorb more than 25,000, writes Beaugé. The high youth unemployment rate has angered the population even more than lack of freedom, and provoked bitterness and a wish to leave, she says.

"Every family numbers an unemployed graduate - or two, or three. For parents who have made considerable sacrifices to pay for their children's studies it is intolerable. The general resentment of the population against Ben Ali started there."

Scourge of graduate unemployment

Beaugé also interviews Khadija Mohsen-Finan, lecturer in political science at the University of Paris-8, who says lack of freedom and integration into political, social and professional life pushed the young into revolt.

"The question of unemployed graduates is the scourge of Tunisia today, and smashes to pieces the model of Tunisian economic success," says Mohsen-Finan. Supposed advantages, such as education and women's emancipation and work, have backfired. There is a higher rate of unemployed graduates in Tunisia than in Algeria or in Morocco; and as they are better educated, they are more demanding, she says.

But unlike in the two other countries, because the informal [economy] has not been able to develop in Tunisia - "a country under tight police control where one had to ask for authorisation for everything" - no 'safety valve' has been established.

The dream young Tunisians had of leaving for Europe came to an end because the European Union closed its borders, nor could they go to neighbouring countries because the integrated Maghreb that Presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali had hoped for did not happen, says Mohsen-Finan. Nor could the young emigrate to Africa "because Tunisia has no Africa policy, unlike Morocco and Algeria".

Tunisian youth was therefore "enclosed, with no possible escape route. It viewed Ben Ali as the head of a clique, inaccessible, with nothing to offer them, without any vision", says Mohsen-Finan.

She says the level of education had been declining for a long time, "but it has got worse over the years, especially from the beginning of Arabisation [in the middle of the 1990s]."

She says the Arabisation of subjects "that are open to educating citizens, such as philosophy and history, allowed Ben Ali to increase control over society, but to the detriment of pupils. Teachers were not trained for that, and they did not have access to the necessary materials. As a result, the standard of languages, especially, is a catastrophe".

Time for young graduates to go home?

Elise Vincent questions four young Tunisian students or recent graduates living in France. According to figures in Le Monde about 5,500 Tunisians were enrolled in French state higher education institutions in 2006-07, way ahead of Germany (1,781) or Canada (927).

While many young Tunisians chose to remain in France after their studies, the departure of Ben Ali could change their minds, says Vincent.

She talked to Hassan, 26, studying management in Lyon, who had previously decided he would not go home until he had five or six years' professional experience; but now he is reconsidering, and could return sooner.

Mohamed, also 26, a graduate of the elite Ecole Polytechnique, had been so determined to stay in France he had applied for naturalisation. But since 14 January his plans were up in the air. "It's as if the cards have been dealt again," he said, referring to the nepotism that had prevailed in Tunisia. He was dithering over whether to return "soon", to "position myself right away" in the Tunisian market that he believed would be promising.

For Heger, 25, studying for her thesis in computer science at the grande école Centrale in Paris, the events had been 'explosive'. "My parents often used to ask me if I wanted to return, but it was a subject I avoided thinking about," she said. But while she used to regard Tunisia as a 'lead weight', now she could distinguish "the hope of progress".

She would complete her thesis before returning home, but believed her country needed her. "It's not that I can do something, it's what I owe."

Sami, 28, who graduated in computer engineering in Marseille and was working in Paris, was the most reserved of the four, says Vincent. He described himself as "on standby"; he liked living in France, and "even if Tunisia changes, it won't be for another five years", he said, explaining his restraint.