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Tataouine: Tunisia's jobless search for answers after deadly protest

Demonstrations may have subsided after the death of protester, but frustrations endure among unemployed
One in four youths are unemployed in Tataouine (AFP)

TATAOUINE, Tunisia – Pupils throw firecrackers and play in front of the city's high school, locals pack the shops for Ramadan, and men throng the cafes for a spot of early morning socialising.

But beyond this picture of everyday life lay the scars of protest in Tataouine. Only days before, on 23 May, burned tyres littered the streets, whose scorch marks are still visible, and the protest camps surrounding the local oil refinery remain, only their residents have now since departed.

Two days of confrontations between protesters and police led to the death of one man, and dozens of injuries. And in Tataouine, despite life having seemingly returned to normal, dissent and frustration continue to bubble under the surface, and the original tensions behind the conflict endure.

The roads of Tataouine are still blocked by tyres and objects (MEE/Lilia Blaise)

The governorate headquarters are practically empty: the governor resigned last week after only two months in office. A few soldiers are posted in front of official buildings, but there are no uniformed police to be seen.

Since last Monday's demonstrations that killed one and injured dozens, Tataouine has tried to regain a sense of calm, despite palpable tensions since the funeral of 23-year-old Mohamed Anouar Sekrafi.

A day of violence

"Tataouine is calling its children. When will you come join us?" wrote Sekrafi, one last time, in a Facebook status posted on 21 May. Sekrafi, from the village of Bir Lahmar, about 20km from Tataouine, was trying to encourage the city's residents to put pressure on the government.

During the night, he and other El Kamour youngsters held a sit-in calling for the shutting of valves at the oil extraction site. Despite a confrontation with the police, who came to the site to reopen the valve during the night, Sekrafi spent the night at the sit-in with his cousin, Mustapha.

At 8am the next day, 22 May, Sekrafi and other protesters tried to negotiate that the valve be closed again. According to witnesses, about 15 cars belonging to the National Guard, sent from the Aouina barracks in Tunis, began surrounding the protesters.

As soon as the National Guard arrived, tension started rising between the youth, the police and the military at the oil site. Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi had ordered the military to be deployed to protect oil production sites on 10 May.

Meanwhile, in the nearby town of Tataouine, anger had also moved up a notch as several demonstrators headed towards the governorate headquarters. At about 9am, as the situation continued to deteriorate in El Kamour, 29-year-old activist Moncef Khabir's windscreen was hit by a tear gas canister as he drove toward the governorate building.

Mostapha Sekrafi in Bir Lahmar wearing a T-shirt paying tribute to Anouar, which reads “Always in our heart” in Arabic (Lilia Blaise/MEE)

His brother was one of the protesters in El Kamour, and continued to send him regular updates. Around 10am, Mustapha Sekrafi, Mohamed's cousin, was injured by stones thrown up by a skidding police car in El Kamour. He was taken to the hospital in Tataouine and while in the ambulance he learned that his cousin Mohamed Anouar had died.

"I had lost him in the masses of protesters in the morning," he told Middle East Eye, speaking from Bir Lahmar.

Meanwhile, when the news reached Khabir that a demonstrator had died, at 11.30am he saw another protestor, Abdellah Aoual, 39, fall before his eyes in front of the Tataouine governorate building.

Aoual had been struck in the eye by a tear gas canister. Khabir transported him, still unconscious, to the Tataouine hospital - he was later transferred to the Sfax University Hospital.

Tunisians carry the coffin of Mohamed Anouar, killed on 21 May in El Kamour (AFP)

In El Kamour, another protester, 28-year-old Khelifa Bouhaouach, was also wounded in the leg. At around noon, the news of Mohamed Anouar's death had spread around El Kamour.

Some decided to continue the demonstrations in Tataouine, while the army asked the police to withdraw from the militarised zone and not to shoot at the demonstrators.

In Tataouine, the clashes continued. The protesters were prevented from entering the governorate building but, in any case, the governor was in the capital, Tunis.

"At about 2pm, the situation began to calm down. Some protestors went to the regional hospital to receive treatment for the damage caused by the gas, others headed home," Khabir told Middle East Eye.

'We saw cars parked out there, without licence plates, while others seemed to be registered in Libya. I can assure you that they were not from Tataouine'

- Moncef Khabir, activist

He denied reports that protesters were responsible for burning down the police station and the National Guard's office, which are situated next to the governorate building, was not the work of the demonstrators.

"We saw cars parked out there, without licence plates, while others seemed to be registered in Libya. They were not from Tataouine," he said.

Meanwhile, the spokesman for the interior ministry declared the death of Anouar an "accident" caused by a police car. Traumatised by the turn of events, people in the south of Tunisia prepared his funeral.

"We were committed to the demonstrations remaining peaceful from the beginning, even when we knew about Mohamed Anouar's death, we did not react with violence," the injured activist Bouhaouach told MEE, while lying on his bed, with half his leg in a plaster cast.

Unemployment evils and the oil dream 

Amid the tension, various conflicting narratives began to swirl - that multiple deaths had occurred, that the violence was being manipulated, and that obscure militias were laying siege to the city.

The one thing that everyone MEE spoke to in the area could agree on, however, was that unemployment had long been a serious concern for them. 

"In Tataouine, we were all born without a job," said Youssef Zorgui, a 29-year-old activist, who graduated with a degree in English literature and civilisation, and has been unemployed for the past seven years.

A resident of Bir Lahmar, Zorgui launched a Facebook page in 2013 called Sawt El Bir Lahmer (Bir Lahmar's voice) in order to "discuss everything happening, from cultural events to protest movements", he explained.

Sabrine Wafi, who heads a local women's organisation, has also been supporting El Kamour's activists.

"At the beginning they didn't want me here because they were scared of being labelled 'an association'. But afterwards, as they saw that I was there to help, they let me attend the sit-in. A big majority is only asking for work," she explained with a broken voice.

"These youths represent a generation that is fed up with having to ask their parents for money to get cigarettes or go to a coffee shop," she told MEE.

The police station at the entrance of Tataouine was burned (MEE/Lilia Blaise)

According to figures provided by the local governorate, there are around 12,000 unemployed youths among the 150,000 residents.

There are 9,644 unemployed graduates, according to the Union of Young Unemployed Graduates, while the Association of Unqualified and Unemployed says the number of unemployed youths who did not complete their high school diploma amounts to 7,000.

In the governorate, delegates from the region, who did not want to be identified, have insisted on the fact that youth unemployment has become, since the revolution, the city's major ill.

The rate of unemployment – 58 percent among graduates and 27 percent among the youth – is one of the highest in the country.

Residents of Bir Lahmar and Tataouine, all unemployed (MEE/Lilia Blaise)

"There are those who went abroad, and those who stayed here. Most people have been without a job," said one young man.

Neither Mohamed Anouar, who held a degree in painting and interior design, nor Khelifa, who graduated with a degree in Islamic sciences and civilisation, nor Youssef, have been able to find work after their studies.

Mustapha Sekrafi, Anouar's cousin, is also unemployed, and used to split his time between his house and the coffee shop. He would spend his days online on Facebook or watching football, and would live on pocket money of only 400 dinars ($164) a month from his family.

After a few initial demonstrations in April, Mustapha Sekfrafi joined the El Kamour sit-in, and he found a new sense of hope as part of this burgeoning activist community.

"There, I truly believed that we would get what we asked for, that we would be heard."

A lot of them do not remember when the sit-in started nor why. Some people have linked the sit-ins to the increase in the number of redundancies at the oil companies and a general sense of exasperation in the villages and neighbourhoods of Tataouine.

Over the past few years, the four oil companies that settled in the region, and their subcontractors, have made the dreams of many residents in Tatouine come true.

"The youths are seeing that a simple worker can be paid around 1,200 dinars in oil companies and earn four times the legal minimum Tunisian wage, which is around 300 dinars," said one of the officials at the governorate.

The camp installed by the young demonstrators next to the oil site of El Kamour (AFP)

For Khabir, the youths' demands are more complex and linked to "a more or less legitimate regionalism".

"The youth also realise that these companies do not have the capacity to hire a lot of people – only 400 to 500 employees in total. However, subcontractors have more employment potential but not a lot of people from Tataouine are working there," he said.

'We've never seen anything come of the social responsibility funds that foreign businesses have'

- Moncef Khabir, activist

"There is a real problem, because we have a development budget of around 60 million dinars, but it doesn't translate into direct benefits for the local environment,"  says a source from the governorate. 

"The only positive thing we obtained last year is the granting of micro-credits that created 500 jobs. It is, however, quite small, when compared to the thousands of unemployed."

In an attempt to address this situation, the youth temporarily took control of the valuable black gold facility in the hope of having their voices heard in Tunis. 

"We've never seen anything come of the social responsibility funds that foreign businesses have," said Khabir, who was waiting for negotiations with the government and the ministry of employment and professional training to come to a conclusion.

"Our message is that we want to help the country. Our aim in protest is not to break the country down," said Bouhaouach.

"That is why we have organised from the beginning in little committees with sit-ins. We really want to negotiate and find a solution."

This article originally appeared on Middle East Eye's French version.

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