Tunisia's marginalised Tataouine rises up against broken government promises

Tunisia's marginalised Tataouine rises up against broken government promises
In-depth: Tunisia's south has long been marginalised, with successive governments since the revolution unable or unwilling to address the country's socioeconomic divide.
7 min read
30 June, 2020
Tunisia's south suffers from chronic unemployment and government neglect. [Getty]
Calm has returned to the southern Tunisian city of Tataouine after weeks of tensions over broken promises to provide employment and development. But activists of the El Kamour movement are still waiting for the government to deliver.

Days of clashes between police and protesters had gripped the city as residents rose up against the government's persistent failure to invest in the region's economic welfare.

Protesters had set up sit-in tents on the streets and blocked roads to prevent trucks from delivering supplies to the remote El Kamour pumping station, a key site for Tunisia's small oil industry.

Demonstrators were also rallying to demand the release of dozens of people arrested in the long weekend of confrontations, including Tarek Haddad, one of the movement's leaders. They had stated they would not negotiate with the government until he was free. 

Hundreds of citizens gathered in downtown Tataouine on Wednesday evening, getting ready for the much-awaited liberation of Haddad. "The situation is less tense since the government stepped in to declare it would look into solutions," one protester told The New Arab before Haddad was released. "It's just to appease the street anger".

The demonstrations turned violent between 20 and 22 June, when police forces used massive volumes of tear gas against crowds of people who were allegedly throwing rocks and blocking roads. The security response was deemed "excessive and unjustified" by the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT). 

The southern city of Tataouine has risen up against the government's persistent failure to invest in the region's economic welfare

Residents witnessed several homes being filled with tear gas from the street. They blamed the police for causing "unprovoked" violence that disrupted the largely peaceful protests. Some of them pointed to intruders who are not members of the El Kamour movement "being sent" to instigate trouble. Many deplored the inaction of the governor of Tataouine, Adel Werghi, and of state officials, as well as the violent security intervention. 

One resident claimed that security forces had fired some 10,000 tear gas canisters in just 24 hours during the three-day scuffles. Walking around the city, it is not uncommon to see young men with plastered arms or legs, broken ribs or bruises from the infamous 72 hours of police violence. 

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Before the recent escalation, a sit-in had been observed for weeks in the city of El Kamour to call for the implementation of all the provisions of a deal signed in 2017 - the Kamour agreement – providing the creation of jobs in the oil and gas sectors and infrastructure projects. Protesters complained that three years on the agreement has still not been implemented.

"We've been patient since 2017. If the government sticks to its commitment, demonstrators will be satisfied. Otherwise, they are ready to return to the streets," said Khalif, a protester in his early 30s. 

"I'd rather stay and work in my country, but eventually I will be forced to move to Europe. I can't make a living here".

Abdallah Aouay, 42, attended the protests still bearing the scars of a serious injury from demonstrations in 2017, when he was struck in the eye by a tear gas canister. The father of five has no job to support his family, nor can he afford to pay for eye surgery. 

"We have nothing here! I'm retired on a 750 TND ($260) pension with four children, none of them work," another protester Abdelsalam, in his 60s, said. "Every governor since 1956 [independence from France] has done nothing for our governorate".

Tataouine is home to Tunisia's oil and gas industry but has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country

The people of Tataouine poured onto the streets in jubilation as a car took El Kamour's key protest figurehead Haddad back to town amidst crowds hailing his release and chanting "al-rakh la!" (no surrender). A small victory for the movement, yet only one step in an ongoing battle.

"Kamour is here to stay," the spokesman vowed outside his home when speaking to the media, alluding to the protest movement's determination to achieve the full implementation of the three-year old accord. He insisted that the young people of Tataouine will "not give up" and will continue to fight for their case. 

In 2017, activists shut down oil and gas transportation at the El Kamour pumping station in the desert for three months to demand state investment and employment in the region. The sit-in ended after an agreement was signed in June 2017 by protesters and authorities, with the mediation of the national labour union UGTT.

Residents gather to celebrate the release of protest leader Tarek Haddad. [Alessandra Bajec/TNA]

Under the deal, the government pledged to allocate an annual budget of 80 million Tunisian dinars ($28 million) to the development and investment fund of Tataouine, and hire 1,500 locals in the oil production and services companies. It also proposed 1,500 jobs in 2017, another 1,000 from January 2018, and 500 from January 2019 in the Environment, Plantation and Gardening Company.

The governorate of Tataouine is home to Tunisia's oil and gas industry, with its fields contributing to 40 percent and 20 percent of the national oil and gas production respectively, based on official data cited in media outlets.

However, it also has one of the highest unemployment rates in Tunisia, exceeding 30 percent according to national statistics issued in 2017. Local citizens have long demonstrated over the imbalance between the deprived southern region and the wealth generated by its oil and natural gas revenues.

The recent protests came at a time when the country is confronting the economic repercussions of the coronavirus crisis. "Before Covid-19 people in Tataouine were waiting for work prospects," said Fouad, a young resident who currently lives in France. "Now they still haven't seen any jobs, they've had enough of it". 

In 2017, activists shut down oil and gas transportation at the El Kamour pumping station for three months to demand state investment and employment in the region

The region of Tataouine lives off trade with neighbouring Libya, with many local youths crossing the border daily to buy consumer goods cheaper than those sold in Tunisia. These young smugglers were relieved at the reopening of the borders on Saturday, closed since March due to the public health crisis.

Tunisia's south has long been marginalised, and successive governments since the revolution have been unable or unwilling to address the concerns of Tunisians in Tataouine. The disparity with other parts of the country is evidenced by the absence of quality public services such as water, health, education and public transport, together with chronic unemployment.

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While Kais Saied won the largest voter percentage in the second round of last year's presidential race from Tataouine, estimated at 96 percent, local inhabitants are furious with the head of state's response to the situation in their region. 

In an interview with Le Monde during his official state visit to France last week, Saied said: "In 2017, at the beginning of the protests in Tataouine, I had advised demonstrators to formulate some projects without waiting for the state to decide for them". He committed to receiving representatives of the El Kamour sit-in in the coming days and assured that a regional development plan would be put in place to respond to their needs.

Last week, the Tunisian government held a ministerial meeting to discuss measures to be taken in response to development needs in the southern region. The measures will be announced in a cabinet meeting scheduled for this week.

The dynamics of the current unrest in the marginalised province will depend on the outcome of the forthcoming cabinet meeting to respond to the unrest and announce measures to fulfil the Kamour accord.

Eleven protest tents remain erected around Tataouine city, with dozens of protesters camping out. Masses of unemployed youths, meanwhile, are still patiently waiting for the unfulfilled promises of development and jobs.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec