Ahead of polls, apathy and disillusionment in Tunisia

Kasserine (Tunisia) (AFP) –


A student from a working-class family in central Tunisia, Karim tries to convince himself municipal elections will usher in a new class of politicians committed to working for local people.

"I'm only 20 and I want to remain hopeful, even if I'm not 100 percent sure the future will be better," he tells AFP in a market in the city of Kasserine, ahead of Sunday's poll.

In January 2011, Kasserine was a hotbed of protest in the popular uprising that forced dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power.

The revolution's cradle was the neighbouring town of Sidi Bouzid, where 26-year-old fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze in December 2010 after authorities confiscated his stock.

Six years older than Karim is now, the graduate's burns were so severe he didn't survive beyond an agonising couple of weeks in hospital. But he was posthumously revered as a catalyst for change.

Karim, who works nights as a lorry driver to fund his studies, still clings to the hope generated by the dictator's fall -- but his optimism is ridiculed by other market-goers.

"You dream my boy!" says unemployed Sami Khadraoui, cutting off the young student in full flow.

"The candidates, even those from Kasserine, will only serve their own interests. They will fill their pockets then leave," says the 31-year-old.

"The first thing the new representatives will do is clean up the areas right in front of their own homes," pipes up another scornful voice, amid the market bustle in Ennour, a poor district of Kasserine.

- 'Hope has expired' -

Such is the disillusionment here that some even pine for the days of Ben Ali.

Seven years after the dictator fell, and in the only country where the so-called Arab Spring has brought a degree of democratic reform, little seems to have changed in this part of the country.

Unemployment in Kasserine and its wider governorate of the same name is 26.2 percent, around 50 percent higher than the national average, according to Tunisian NGO the Forum for Economic and Social Rights.

The per capita representation of small- and medium-sized enterprises in Tunis is more than 15 times higher than in Kasserine, which has a population of around 90,000.

Alleged government neglect has also made it a breeding ground for Islamic extremism, with insurgents tempting some young men to their mountain hideouts in the governorate.

A December 2015 study by the Soufan Group think-tank found Tunisia to be the single greatest source of foreign fighters in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, dwarfing by a factor of nearly 2.5 those coming from Saudi Arabia.

And frustration over the lack of change has brought fresh street clashes. In January 2016, five years after the uprising against Ben Ali, social unrest broke out in Kasserine and spread to the rest of the country.

Further demonstrations against unemployment and high prices in January this year resulted in more than 200 people being arrested, according to the interior ministry, with this part of central Tunisia again a flashpoint area.

"Hope has expired for the majority of people," says 61-year-old Jamel Ben Mohamed, a trained lawyer who has scraped by selling vegetables for the past 25 years.

"They have lost all confidence in politicians and are not interested in the municipal elections or the legislative and presidential polls" set to take place next year, he adds.