The 19-year-old smoking with friends in a poor district of Tunisia’s capital had a simple explanation for night-time clashes between youths and police that have shaken the country – he has nothing to lose.
A decade after mass protests toppled Tunisia’s long-time president and sparked uprisings across the Middle East, anger is boiling over again amid economic stagnation, the global pandemic and a widening disconnect between people and their leaders.
“There’s nothing here … there’s no opportunity. The only government we know is the police car coming to arrest people,” said Mohammed, surrounded by nodding friends next to walls marked with graffiti.
In the worst political unrest in years, thousands of protesters have marched through cities across the country demanding jobs, dignity and an end to police violence. At night, youths face off with security forces.
Mohammed, who gave only his first name for fear of reprisals, was one of ten out-of-school and unemployed boys and young men in the alleyway in the Ezzahrouni district, passing around cigarettes, soda bottles and marijuana joints.
Like the others, his only aspiration was to leave Tunisia to seek his fortune in Europe. Police have said most of the hundreds arrested this week were aged between 15 and 20.
Since Tunisia’s 2011 revolution ousted autocratic leader Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, successive governments have struggled with high deficits and demands for state jobs and services.
“If we do not listen to the voice of these angry youths, they will sweep away the whole parliament, government, president – the whole system,” said Safi Said, an independent lawmaker addressing parliament this week.
The government is one of the weakest since the revolution, backed by a fragile coalition of rival parties after 2019 elections produced a deeply fragmented parliament.
Formed after the COVID-19 pandemic thrust Tunisia’s economy further into crisis, it is trying to slow a surge in infections without keeping the working poor from their jobs or widening the yawning fiscal deficit.
Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, speaking on television on Tuesday, said he understood the economic frustration that lay behind the unrest but vowed to confront any street violence.
Mohammed said he had not listened to the prime minister’s speech and did not know the difference between Tunisia’s prime minister and president.
The longest job he has held since leaving school four years ago was in a cafe for a month. His parents give him five dinar ($1.50) most mornings to get by. None of his five older siblings work.
He walks through the neighbourhood with friends, rifling through barrows of second-hand clothing imported from abroad looking for items he might be able to sell on for more money.
“All I hope for every day is to find some pot and some beer and maybe get out of this world for a while,” he said.
His friends, including an 11-year-old who quit school, all wanted to leave Tunisia.
Omar, a 17-year-old with a diploma as a barber, worked in a hair salon for a while but stopped because he was not paid. His father is disabled and he said the family skipped breakfast for want of money.
He has gone to the port several times to stow away on a ship for Europe, but he has been caught, beaten and detained, he said. He can’t afford to pay professional smugglers to take him abroad as a rising number of Tunisians are doing.
Ayman, who said he was 16, scowled and smoked, saying he took part in the clashes because he wanted to hurt the police.
“The police insult us,” he said, adding that he had been arrested three times for theft and drug possession. “We insult them by throwing stones.”