Here in Tunisia’s own “Paris suburbs,” the unemployed, unrepresented, and unheard young men who led the Tunisian revolution have a message that is both simple and provocative. “We don’t want freedoms, we want jobs,” says Yassin Ben, 24. In neighborhoods like this one at the edge of the capital, Tunis, the very same conditions that led to Tunisia’s 2011 revolution – unemployment, marginalization, urban migration, and police harassment – persist.
Economic experts warn that the government must find a way for the young people of Douar Hicher and neighborhoods like it across the country to be included in the decisionmaking about their future and provided with the means to lift themselves out of poverty. It was no surprise that Douar Hicher was one of the hotspots of violent protests that erupted across Tunisia in January over a government decision to raise prices and taxes on basic goods to meet a rising budget deficit.
“Our problem isn’t politics or freedoms: it is unemployment and marginalization,” says Oussama Marassi, a humanitarian and political activist, who like many residents is without electricity or running water. “Seven years after the revolution, and either our politicians still haven’t learned that, or they just don’t care.” “The reality is that the problems that sparked the revolution have not gone away. In many cases for these marginalized communities, they have gotten worse,” said Romdhane Ben Amor of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, or FTDES. “These communities are socio-economic time-bombs.”
There are several similar communities in Tunisia, such as Hay Tadhamin, and hundreds of thousands live in similar conditions across North Africa in the suburbs of Cairo, Algiers, and Rabat and Casablanca in Morocco. Experts warn that these populations, after having their hopes raised by the Arab Spring, may be the ones to carry the next stage of popular protests and insurrection, and represent the greatest political threat to their governments.
The Urban Migration Waves
Douar Hicher began as a collection of illegal settlements in a wave of urban migration in the 1980s, as impoverished families from neglected rural towns and villages built homes on government farmland at the edge of Tunis. The families were later granted public housing in the 1990s. Since the 2011 revolution, urban migration from rural areas has increased dramatically. The population of three-square-mile Douar Hicher grew from 80,000 to more than 100,000 between 2014 and 2017 alone.
According to a 2014 World Bank report, some 90 percent of rural families in Tunisia report that members have migrated to urban centers. Many end up in Douar Hicher. Young men bring their families and soon their extended families – all in search of jobs – adding makeshift stories of cheap cement and cinderblock atop already crumbling public housing. Officials refer to Douar Hicher as Tunisia’s “Paris suburbs,” the impoverished French communities of disenfranchised North African immigrants that are hotbeds of discontent and fertile recruiting grounds for extremists.
“Everyone who wants to find work comes to the capital; and everyone who comes to the capital ends up here,” says Majed Hamouda, secretary-general of the Manouba governorate, which governs the enclave. “The government cannot simply keep up with this exceptional, unplanned population growth.”
The major draw to Douar Hicher – in addition to its unregulated plots of land and rent as low as $80 per month – is the location of garment and plastics factories in the area’s industrial zone at the southeast edge of the neighborhood. However, six of the 12 factories have shut down since the 2011 revolution, and the few jobs that go around pay little; an average of $7 to $10 a day.
Residents who have ideas for small businesses languish in the near-endless bureaucracy of the central Tunisian government. Fawzi Khimiri, 42, who works odd jobs as a carpenter and construction worker for $5 a day, has been waiting for over three years for the government to approve his permit to open a newspaper and telephone card kiosk. “We want to live clean, law-abiding lives, but the system is not allowing us to do so,” Mr. Khimiri says.