Graduate unemployment sparks protests and 250 injuries

Tunisia declared a night curfew in the central city of Kasserine after clashes last weekend between police and young unemployed graduates demonstrating for jobs. Protests have since spread around the country, with deaths reported and nearly 250 protesters injured.

The protests erupted in the deprived province of Kasserine, where unemployment has soared to 30%. Earlier, Tunisians had gathered in their thousands for the fifth anniversary of the 2011 popular uprising that sparked an ‘Arab Spring’ across North Africa.

Young jobless graduate Ridha Yahyaoui (28) committed suicide after local authorities removed him from a shortlist for a public sector job. According to the news site Tunisia Live, Yahyaoui climbed an electricity transmission tower and was electrocuted after becoming tangled in wires.

“Following the breakdown of a meeting between protesters and the region’s governor, a number of unemployed graduates attempted suicide on the roof of the governorate’s headquarters,” Tunisia Live reported. Two fell and were taken to hospital. Protests and clashes continued around the building and then spread elsewhere.

Yahyaoui’s demise echoed Tunisia’s revolution of 2011. Self-immolation by Mohamed Bouazizi, a vegetable seller in the town of Sidi Bouzid, sparked nationwide protests that overthrew former Tunisian president Zine El Abine Ben Ali. Last week in the coastal city of Sfax, a man also self-immolated after police reportedly confiscated suspected contraband.

Demonstrations spread

On Monday, a march was held in Tunis, with protesters demanding an investigation into the handling of job lists and expressing solidarity with unemployed graduates. The protest was called by the General Union of Tunisian Students and the Union of Unemployed Graduates.

More demonstrations were held in the capital on Wednesday, with protesters chanting: "Work, freedom, dignity".

Also on Wednesday, the fourth day of protests, a policeman was killed when his car overturned during efforts to disperse a protest in the town of Firyanah. Interior Ministry spokesperson Walid al-Waqini said protesters had attacked the officer after the accident.

Yahyaoui’s death in Kasserine sparked four days of violent protest. On Wednesday, police clashed with hundreds of demonstrators who were demanding a solution to joblessness, Middle East Eye reported. Some protesters had set up roadblocks with burning tyres.

“Witnesses said police used tear gas and water cannon and fired warning shots in the air as they came under attack from stone-throwers,” according to Middle East Eye. A hospital treated 246 people for tear gas and other injuries. Local radio station Jawhara FM said 19 security force members had also been hurt.

“Regional health authority chief Abdelghani Chaabani said eight police were injured in Kasserine as well as another 11 in nearby Thala, a day after clashes on Tuesday in which 20 protesters and three police were lightly hurt.”

Government scrambles

Middle East Eye reported on Wednesday that the government had announced a series of “imminent and urgent” measures aimed at calming protests.

“Following an emergency cabinet meeting, government spokesperson Khaled Chouket announced a new employment scheme to create 5,000 new jobs. Under the scheme, a further 1,400 unemployed people will also be given work as part of a pre-existing programme.”

The government also pledged to improve conditions, including by raising social housing spending and combatting corruption, according to Middle East Eye.

The revolution and university reform

Although the slogan of the 2011 Tunisian revolution was ‘Labour, freedom, dignity’, universities have been failing to fulfill the first of those goals and have been undercutting progress in achieving the other two.

Unemployment across the country stood at 15% during the second half of 2015 compared with 12% in 2010. In some areas it is far higher.

Also, 32% of those without jobs hold graduate certificates, according to a survey on population and employment conducted by the Tunisian National Institute of Statistics. The survey reported that the universities do not produce graduates with skills required by the labour market.

Tunisia's graduate unemployment problem is also driven by weak economic growth and a decline in investment in both the public and private sectors, coupled with a rise in the number of university graduates.