Higher education in Tunisia

The vestiges of spring

The Arab Spring started in Tunisia, five years ago. Led by students, the people toppled their leader. How are Tunisia’s young people doing today? A tour of the universities in Tunis. By Arnfrid Schenk

His death changed the Arab world. On 17 December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, 26 years old, poured petrol over himself and set himself on fire with a lighter. In broad daylight, in Sidi Bouzid, a city in central Tunisia. The vegetable seller could not bear his life any longer: no chance of a permanent job, despite passing his school-leaving exams, not to mention endless harassment from the police. He died on 4 January. Ten days later, the Tunisians drove Zine el Abidine Ben Ali out of the country. The man who called himself president, but was really a dictator, who had exploited Tunisia for 23 years. First the young people took to the streets – students, graduates – then the whole nation, everyone from factory workers to lawyers.

The revolt in Tunisia threw out sparks that ignited the Arabellion or Arab Spring, and Egypt, too, shook off its despot. The world held its breath. Syria and Libya tried to follow the example; they faltered, sinking into chaos and civil war. Egypt also failed and transformed itself back into a police state, worse than it had been under Mubarak.

Only Tunisia saved the Arab Spring, building a democracy with a modern constitution and receiving the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize. That’s how the West sees the country. But what does it look like from inside – what remains of the revolution? How are young people doing today, the students, the graduates, the ones who started it all rolling by demanding dignity, freedom, work?

Imen Taleb is waiting for me in a cafe on Avenue Bourguiba, a wide boulevard with a tree-lined promenade at its centre, which runs straight as an arrow out of the winding old town and past the Ministry of the Interior. Tens of thousands of people demonstrated here in 2012, until Ben Ali boarded a plane on 14 January and fled the country.

The pavement cafes with their round bistro tables, the facades of the buildings – much of the centre of Tunis looks French. Imen Taleb is 32 and is wearing a thin, loosely-tied orange headscarf and a red raincoat. It is the end of November and the sky over Tunis can quickly fill with clouds.

She still knows the slogans of the revolution by heart, even if she wasn’t present at the really big demonstrations: "Hubs wa ma, Ben Ali la", she exclaims over the coffee house table. "Bread and water, but without Ben Ali". There is a touch of bitterness in her voice.

Gathering to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Tunisian uprising (photo: pe-alliance/AP Phicturoto/H. Dridi
The Arab world changed with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, here seen on a banner. The Tunisians gather to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the uprising which set the Arab Spring in motion

University graduates join the unemployed

At one time, Imen wanted to be a German teacher, and took her school-leaving exams in El Guettar, a small town not far from Sidi Bouzid. After four years of university, she couldn’t find a job – either at the university, or in a school. "Of course not," she says, as if this were self-evident: she didn’t have any connections, or money for bribes. She moved in with her sister in Tunis, took a master’s degree and once again failed to find a job. Like so many, she spent a year working in a call centre, earning five dinars an hour, less than €2.50. It was time lost, she says. Sometimes she felt powerless, had no strength. A lot of her fellow students gave up and contended themselves with the call centre. Imen Taleb battled on, took up research residencies in Kassel – and since then German has come even more naturally to her. Occasionally she does some teaching at a university in Tunis. She is now writing her doctoral thesis and hopes to get a permanent academic position.

"In the end, we didn’t win anything," she says. Then, after a pause: "Well, we got freedom." She smiles. People are allowed to talk about politics and religion again, on the streets, at university. So is there still room for pride in what Tunisia has achieved: shaking off a dictator, no civil war, a modern constitution? People with secure jobs are proud of that, she says, but people who are unemployed aren’t. You can’t eat freedom.

Taleb tells me about her younger brother. He studied French and wants to be a teacher as well. He got his degree in 2010 – and he’s still looking for work. He lives with their parents and once a month he gets on the bus and travels the 350 kilometres to the capital, to traipse round the authorities, schools, companies. Trips that have come to nothing, for five years.

30 percent of university graduates are jobless. In the provinces of the country’s interior,  which are still neglected by the politicians, one in every two young academics is out of work. It's worse than it was before the revolution. Marrying and starting a family are things many of this generation can only dream of.

The campus at La Manouba University is unusually quiet. The humanities faculty is on the western edge of Tunis. Little groups of students sit in the sun on white stone walls, chatting. The entrances to the two-storey faculty building are blocked with chairs. A student union has called for a strike; most have obeyed and gone home. "Again," groans Moez Maataoui, a linguist and lecturer at Manouba. "It’s not about political demands, it’s about making the exam easier – they want to learn less."

The revolution has lost its children

Maataoui has plenty of free time now. He invites me to the canteen for couscous and sketches a picture of Tunisia's sickly education system. Maataoui is a serious man of 40. In the early days of the revolution he couldn't imagine that Ben Ali would be deposed. He only joined the demonstrations at a late stage. "I was afraid," he says, "like many of my colleagues." The universities had been infiltrated by Ben Ali's secret service and a lot of critical academics ended up in prison. School and university, he says, used to be a promise that those at the bottom could make it to the top. Like him: his mother was illiterate and his father only attended a Koran school. Moez went to university, received grants, continued his studies in Heidelberg and earned his PhD. He’s now on his way to becoming a professor and is researching language in the dictatorship.

Today, a degree is an empty promise for many people. After Ben Ali simplified schools in the nineties so that ever more pupils were able to stay on and pass their school-leaving exams – and since the state guaranteed a free place at university for everyone who passed these exams – quality went downhill. That didn't bother the ruler: having too many students was better than having too many unemployed people. He suppressed the fact that in the end, this would amount to the same thing, that he had constructed a time-bomb, until it exploded.

La Manouba University in Tunis (photo: DW/M. Marwa)
La Manouba university in Tunis: many students graduate only to enter the ranks of the unemployed. Thirty percent of all Tunisian university graduates are without a job. 40,000 more enter the limited labour market every year

Teaching in schools is inadequate and the teachers earn too little – 1000 dinar a month (€500) is hardly enough to feed a family. As a result, many teachers give expensive tuition outside school and, to make it worth the money, award good grades afterwards. The game continues at university. The number of students grows and the quality of teaching declines. The country of 11 million people has 320,000 students and every year 40,000 graduates flood onto the negligible job market, educated past the requirements of the economy, with a degree that is worth nothing.

Disaffected youth, an ailing economy, increasing terrorism

And the youth are supposed to be the driving force for the development of the nation: so says Article 8 of the new Tunisian constitution. The reality looks rather different. President Beji Caid Essebsi is 89 and during his election campaign he said repeatedly: "youth is a mental, not a physical state." He wants to get Tunisia on the right path and then hand it over to the youth. Only the youth don’t believe in that, they don’t feel they are being taken seriously and they can’t get a foothold in the established political parties. They stay away from the polling booths: only 12.5 percent of 18-21-year-olds voted in the parliamentary elections a year ago. According to a study by the World Bank, in Tunisian cities, only just under a third of young people have faith in the political system; in rural areas that figure is less than ten percent.

Democracy is in danger, from terrorism as well as apathy. Tunisia has been on high alert since the attacks on the Bardo Museum in spring 2015 at the latest. On the day of the terrorist acts in Paris, radical Islamists beheaded a shepherd boy on the border with Algeria, and laid his head at his parents' door. A bomb exploded on 24 November just a few hundred metres from Avenue Bourgiba. It killed twelve police officers from the presidential guard. President Essebsi declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew.

The assassins don’t come from abroad. They are young Tunisians, who see radical Islamism as their only way out. Almost five thousand are thought to have joined IS in Syria and Iraq, many students among them. Over ten thousand more are said to have been prevented from leaving the country by the security services. Seifeddine Rezgui was 23 and an engineering student when he killed 38 tourists on the beach at Sousse with a Kalashnikov. Lack of prospects and disappointment at the incomplete revolution are making these angry young men susceptible to being wooed by hate preachers.

A nostalgia for Ben Ali has become noticeable. These terrorist attacks wouldn't have happened under him, a lot of people are saying. They repress memories of the corruption during his rule. A few months ago, a study by the World Bank investigated the systematic tax evasion by companies linked to the Ben-Ali clan. It found that between 2002 and 2009, 1.2 billion dollars was lost from the public purse. Many laws worked in favour of companies owned by the ruling clan, who for 20 years skimmed off a fifth of the profits, while preventing competition and growth. Little has improved since then. The Tunisians chased their dictator off the field, but they have not freed themselves from his corrupt economic system.

La Manouba University staff and students demonstrate (photo: DPA)
Demonstration at La Manouba University: school was made so easy under Ben Ali that more and more school-leavers were able to matriculate. There are no tuition fees, meaning the number of students continues to rise, while standards drop. The courses are heavy on theory and lack occupational relevance, says Beate Schindler-Kovats, director of the DAAD office in Tunis

Disaffected youth, an ailing economy, growing terrorism – that’s what Tunisia looks like today. But there are also glimmers of hope. Like the computer science students at the Ecole Nationale d’Ingenieurs in Tunis. They lead me to a small room on the campus where Association Junior Enterprise is based. A student organisation trying to build a bridge between the campus and the world of work. They make contact with companies, organise conferences. A dozen budding engineers, almost half of them women, crowd around a table of computers. You can sense a lot of energy here; some of them want to found start-ups. They still believe in the future of Tunisia. "We need more patience, we have to work hard, then it will come good," they say.

Can it really still come good?

Fathi Triki, 69, Unesco Chair of Arabic Philosophy, doubts it. He is sitting in a cafe in La Manar, a district that nestles in the hills above the inner city. White houses with well-kept gardens; lovely sea views. Triki describes a less pleasant outlook for Tunisia: the Ben-Ali entourage finding their way back into key positions in the economy, unemployment continuing to grow. Young people will feel it and turn away in disappointment.

And then? Fathi Triki says: "If the government doesn’t manage to combat unemployment and create social justice, we’ll have another revolution in five years."

Arnfrid Schenk

© Zeit 2016

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

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