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Poverty, Hopelessness Beget Violence in Tunisia's Suburbs

Demonstrators face police officers during clashes in Ettadhamen City near Tunis, Tunisia, Jan. 19, 2021.

Protests have swept towns and cities throughout Tunisia for a week, often turning violent as demonstrators denounce what they say are broken promises from the government, which hasn't been able to turn around an economy on the verge of bankruptcy.

Many protesters are disenfranchised young people, a third of whom are unemployed, taking their voices to the street after being left behind by the country's leadership. But Tunisian students, artists and left-wing activists have also protested, only to be met with tear gas and a muscular police response.

Rights groups say the police have arrested about 1,000 people — many of them minors — for alleged acts of vandalism and theft, while parents and families are now also joining the protests, lobbying for the release of their children.

Other people are simply exploiting the chaos to loot supermarkets and smash up local shops.

The Tunis suburb of Hay Ettadhamen — among the capital's poorest districts — saw some of this week's most regular and violent demonstrations. One of the most densely populated areas in North Africa, it has a population of more than 140,000.

'Vandals and criminals'

Tunisian media were quick to label all the protesters "vandals and criminals," but the identity of the demonstrators is complex and many of the protesters were peaceful. In Hay Ettadhamen, The Associated Press spoke to young protesters desperate for a positive vision of the future. None of them would give their full name or have their photo taken, for fear of repercussions from law enforcement.

They also have a deep distrust of the media.

"It's not a circus for you here" said one café owner, Mohammed, who would only give his first name. "You only come here when there is chaos. Where are you the rest of the time?"

Aziz says his district is bankrupt, "There's no money here," said the 17-year-old, who works in a metal workshop. Aziz is not his real name, which he did not want to provide for fear of state reprisals.

"I turn 18 in a few months and then I'll try to make the crossing to Europe with my friends — there's money there, at least."

In 2020, attempts to migrate by sea soared, with Italian authorities reporting 12,883 irregular arrivals from Tunisia, compared with 2,654 in 2019.

Around a third of 15- to 29-year-olds are unemployed in Tunisia. Some young people, faced with few options, make money stealing phones or selling drugs.

Tarik, 16, is an athlete for a national team but also gives an alias. Despite his easy smile, he says he feels lost and hopeless. He feels a lot of disgust and anger toward the police and the state.

He tells an anecdote about trying to get his passport approved to attend an international sports competition — three times, he says, it was rejected simply because of prejudice against the inhabitants of Hay Ettadhamen.

Unlike some of his friends, Tarik still attends school, and is a promising sportsman, but still feels he has no future.

Tarik and his teenage friends were eager to show videos of themselves throwing fireworks and rocks at the police, the pride visible on their faces.

"I hit the tear gas canisters back at them with a tennis racket!" said another. In a country with less and less to offer them, these teens have little to fear and little to lose.

Tear gas and armored vehicles

Police brutality has defined these protests. On Tuesday night, the AP followed the police and national guard — armed with tear gas and armored vehicles — as they pushed back the crowd throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails, often shooting into narrow side-streets and causing an outcry from inhabitants as houses filled up with gas.

Videos of police beating protesters then circulated on social media. The young people the AP interviewed were outspoken about their hatred for the police, brimming with stories of day-to-day injustices. They said that instead of President Kaïs Saied, they'd rather see El Castro — a Tunisian rapper from a similarly impoverished neighborhood — as president.

A coalition of Tunisian NGOs, including the National Union of Tunisian Journalists and Lawyers Without Borders, held a news conference Thursday to condemn the police violence — which they said was in response to "legitimate protest" — and media rhetoric that has framed the protesters as criminals.

"These young people did not commit crimes. They are protesters. They protested against economic and social policy," said Mehdi Jlassi, an activist and member of the journalists' union. They don't even have hope to dream of a future that is better than the prison they find themselves in."

"There is no dialogue between the state and these young people, so they turn to radical solutions, radical protest. … That's why you see their frustration against the police."

Rim Ben Ismail, a psychologist, previously carried out a study of 800 young people in some of the neighborhoods that have seen protests in the past week.

Those she interviewed tended to be jobless, from poor families or had left school early. In the past decade, 1 million children in Tunisia have dropped out of school. Although she noted that the phenomenon of minors engaging with such protests needs more study, Ben Ismail said that their experience of the 2011 revolution may have deeply impacted them.

Visiting schools in 2011 "we saw that these children had lived through so many violent acts — the noise of the firearms, death, violence in their neighborhood — and that this had troubled them and traumatized them."

She said studies showed that prior experience of violence — in the neighborhood or in the home — would lead to a tendency to engage with such forms of radical protest.

"These same young people find that the only way they can express themselves is by violence," she said.