Inside Ettadhamen - neglected Tunisia neighbourhood fuels protest with anger and misery

On the fringes of the capital, there’s little hope for many when even education can’t guarantee a ticket to flee the dangerous streets, writes Erin Clare Brown from Tunis

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Gathered around a chipped Formica table, under the light of a bare bulb in a cafe in Ettadhamen, one of Tunis’s poorest neighbourhoods, four young men drag on Gauloise cigarettes as they tot up the cost of everyday living to the last dinar.

"On a Tunisian salary, on 400 dinars a month, you can afford to take the train to work, have a coffee, a cigarette, and maybe eat lunch," said Skander, 25, a marketing student.

“Maybe,” interjected his friend Hassen, also 25. They all laugh, knowingly. Three meals a day is never a guarantee, even for those in full-time jobs.

People think we're protesting just to make trouble, but everyone out on the street at night has his reasons to be there

The grinding poverty and lack of economic mobility that plague their neighbourhood have driven Skander, Hassen and hundreds of their peers to the streets night after night in recent weeks in a wave of protests reminiscent of those that ousted president Zine El Abedin Ben Ali 10 years ago.

While organised activists hold rallies and protests on the main avenues downtown during daylight hours, dozens of young men defy Covid-19 curfew orders at night to battle with police in their own neighbourhoods.

They hurl rocks and Molotov cocktails, when they can afford the fuel. The police respond with tear gas and rubber bullets.

More than 1,200 young people have been arrested, many of them minors, and one has died since the latest confrontations began on January 15.

A tense standoff with riot police ensued when protesters tried to reach the Parliament building Tuesday. Erin Clare Brown for The National

“We can’t breathe, we have nothing,” said Moutia, 21, who spent much of last week warring with the police on the streets of Ettadhamen every evening when the sun had set.

"People think we're protesting just to make trouble, but everyone out on the street at night has his reasons to be there. For some of us, it is our own poverty. For others, it is injustice from the police or the authorities, but all of us are there for a reason, and we're angry," he told The National.

Politicians on both ends of Tunisia’s increasingly polarised political spectrum twist the protests in Ettadhamen, which are unstructured and decentralised, to conform to their own agendas.

The left claims the protesters are demanding the removal of the government and the moderate Islamist Ennahda party. They, in turn, focus on the looting and vandalism by some of the young protesters in their appeal for law and order.

Neither side acknowledges the core of these outbursts – decades of failed economic, educational and social policies that left working-class neighbourhoods like Ettadhamen isolated, marginalised and desperate.

Unwanted guests in their own city

The neighbourhood of Ettadhamen sprang up on the outskirts of Tunis in the mid-1970s, after a series of failed state agricultural experiments forced small-time farmers to leave the country’s interior en masse and settle near the capital, chasing the promise of industrial jobs.

“That rapid urbanisation happened without the financial or political capacity to manage or even properly plan the expansion,” said political economist Emma Murphy, who researches Tunisia.

Hundreds of shoddy block houses went up, with little thought about schools, hospitals or transport.

The promised manufacturing jobs never materialised, yet the displaced and dispossessed workers had no place else to go. Many turned to subsistence work, or menial labour, to scrape a living.

Everything I earn goes to my children's education
Najia, a cleaner from Ettadhamen

Now, decades on, their children and grandchildren drift in the same desperate straits. Like their forbears, they are still seen as outsiders in the capital.

Residents describe an invisible but powerful barrier of distrust that exists between Ettadhamen and the rest of the city.

“If you leave the neighbourhood and a policeman stops you at a checkpoint and sees you’re from Ettadhamen,” said Neji, 34, “they’ll interrogate you, and ask you, ‘What are you doing here?’”

Young people doctor job applications, using the address of a friend from university or a cousin living in a better neighbourhood to avoid revealing that they are from Ettadhamen.

“If an employer finds out they’re from Ettadhamen, they’ll know they will probably turn up late because the transport is so bad, or have to leave early to avoid getting mugged on the way home,” Ms Murphy said.

This marginalisation extends to the highest echelons of government.

Last week, Defence Minister Brahim Bertegi claimed that those protesting in Ettadhamen were not “indigenous to the cities of the coast, but guests” in the capital.

A narrow window of escape

During COVID, Najia, who works as a housekeeper, went months without the income she uses to supplement her children's education, including her 12-year-old son Lofti. Erin Clare Brown / The National

Many in Ettadhamen see education as the only means of escape from the cycle of poverty in their neighbourhood.

But the public education system groans under the weight of too many pupils, and teachers save their energies for higher-paying private students who they tutor after hours.

“Everything I earn goes to my children’s education,” said Najia, a cleaner from Ettadhamen whose daughter, 14, and son, 12, attended school only part-time this academic year because of Covid-19.

When the pandemic hit, Najia’s clients in the upmarket neighbourhoods of Tunis told her to stay away.

For two months, the family lived on the meagre salary her husband earns as a 24-hour security guard.

Now back to work, Najia pays for after-school care for her son, but her daughter is left alone at home for long stretches.

She hopes they will both continue their studies, but worries that she will not have enough money to help them get into the right schools.

With few connections and little capital to bribe their way into better colleges, students in Ettadhamen who do go on to university bear the brunt of decades of broken education policy that has hollowed out higher education.

Two young residents of Ettadhaman joined the protests Tuesday, January 26th, leading chants of "Work, freedom, national dignity!" Erin Clare Brown for The National

In a ploy to decrease the unemployment rate in the 1990s, Tunisia’s former president, Ben Ali, greatly expanded access to education. But, the quality of the instruction at new universities was never regulated and rapidly deteriorated.

Ms Murphy described meeting graduates of computer science programmes “who had never touched a computer before”.

After graduation, a narrow window of escape opens for students in Ettadhamen.

A lucky few land jobs in their chosen careers, some even overseas.

But 29 per cent of Tunisians with advanced degrees are jobless, according to the latest figures from the World Bank. The rate is estimated to be nearly double that in working-class neighbourhoods.

Many graduates, such as agricultural engineer Oussema Ayari, can find only part-time employment.

Mr Ayari wanted to open his own agricultural co-operative, but a web of bureaucracy and corruption stopped him getting the credit he needed.

“There’s no way to start a business or realise your ambitions,” he said. “The youth see that the social elevator is blocked, and they start thinking of leaving.”

Neji, a computational engineer, knew he had only a few months after he graduated to find a job before his window of opportunity closed.

“If you leave your studies and work in a shop for four or five years, you’re never going to be considered for a real job. Even if you have the same education,” he said. He managed to find employment at an international company and emigrated to Paris in 2018. “But I meet so many young guys who came to Europe the other way – on boats.”

Last year, a record 13,000 Tunisians boarded small fishing vessels to cross the treacherous waters of the Mediterranean Sea in hopes of landing in Europe. The number is five times higher than in 2019.

Hassen, one of the young men at the protests in Ettadhamen, said he would not hesitate to join them.

“I don’t want to stay here because, in this country, only the richest survive,” he said.

‘They Planned This for Us’

For those who can find neither a job nor want to board a boat for Europe, few options remain in Ettadhamen.

Tunisia's mounting trade deficit and pressure from the International Monetary Fund to carry out spending cuts triggered a currency crisis in 2019, with the dinar depreciating 26 per cent against the dollar.

The only thing that isn't more expensive these days is the drugs

That hit residents of Etthadamen, already accustomed to budgeting every dinar of their paycheques to meet daily necessities, particularly hard as prices rose.

Some young men bring in money by pilfering phones from people on public transport and hawking them on the black market. Many others sink into despair and drug use.

“The only thing that isn’t more expensive these days is the drugs,” said Moutia, one of the young protesters.

Run-ins with the police are common, and often brutal, as the response to protests in recent weeks have underscored.

And when the courts began prosecuting protesters, some as young as 16, handing down two-year sentences, the young men who spoke to The National were incensed but hardly surprised.

“What’s waiting for you after two years in prison when you’re 16? What can your life be after that?” said Moutia. “It feels like a premeditated programme, like they planned this for us.”