From the dusty, unpaved streets of impoverished rural villages like Sidi Bouzid, where Tunisia's "people's revolution" kicked off more than a month ago, to the wide, tree-lined boulevards of the chic arabesque and French-style capital, there's a common Tunisian gesture people use to explain their grievances over the lack of jobs; a quick tap to the left shoulder. It means that they need political connections, a shoulder to lean on, to get a job.
During dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's 23-year rule, Tunisia had a relatively respectable economic record. Since 1990, Tunisia's United Nations Development Progam human development index measurement a composite of the country's health, education and income development has been well above both the regional Arab average as well as the global average. Last year, it ranked 81st out of 169 countries.
Still, World Bank reports while lauding the country's improved global competitiveness and the fact that exports doubled over a little more than a decade consistently point out that despite this strong growth, unemployment has remained high. Officially, the jobless rate stands at about 14%, but it is several times higher among the young, educated class. "The overall unemployment rate of higher education graduates, which was below 5% in 1994, has increased significantly to 23% in 2009," the World Bank says in its most recent country profile for Tunisia. "Recent graduates face 46% unemployment 18 months after graduation." It's a staggering figure in a country where half of the population of 10 million is below the age of 25, and was compounded by the fact the former regime didn't make it easy for Tunisians to emigrate.
Ben Ali, in a last-ditch attempt to cling to power, promised to create 300,000 new jobs over the next two years. But it was too late. The declining economic opportunities for a growing population of well-educated young people, combined with seething resentment over his regime's increasingly repressive and corrupt dealings, created the groundswell of opposition that erupted after Sidi Bouzid native Mohammad Bouazizi, a fruit and vegetable vendor, set himself on fire in mid-December when his meager livelihood was threatened by a policewoman who confiscated his cart and its produce.
Though the protesters do not deny the uprising involved jobs, they point out that the issue was intricately tied to dignity: first, a young man's and then an entire nation's. "The reasons for this uprising weren't only economic," says Abdeljelil Bedoui, an economist and one of four ministers who resigned from the interim government on January 18, just a day after it was formed, to protest the continued presence of members of Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally party, or RCD. "It was about a lack of freedom and dignity."
And the dust is yet to settle. Four people were killed over the weekend in fresh anti-government clashes with security forces, highlighting the continued instability. A weary population is still hungry for change.
When many police switched sides and joined the protesters, one of their demands was a labor union to lobby for better pay. Soon after, it was the turn of the capital's lime green-clad municipality workers, who noisily protested near the Prime Minister's Office, demanding higher wages and a union. They were joined by teachers and students observing a strike that closed most educational institutions. "My students are worried about unemployment," says Jilani Yahyawe, an Arabic-language teacher at Lycee Bardo secondary college. "My own daughter is an English-language major with a master's degree and she's been unemployed for two years now. These young people deserve a better future, that's why we're all here."
Hopes are still high that things will change. But the young are impatient. As one young male protester told TIME; "We brought down one leader, we can bring down another." Perhaps, but weeks of protests have yet to force the interim government, headed by Ben Ali stalwart Mohammad Ghannouchi, to quit. The political instability has already prompted British investment bank Barclays Capital to shave a percentage point from its earlier growth forecast of 5% for this year. Continued uncertainty will not bode well for a service-based economy reliant on agriculture and tourism; it certainly won't reduce the ranks of the jobless.
"Our growth rate is very weak," says Murad Ben Turkiya, an economist. "If Tunisia could just increase its growth rate by one or two percent, that would markedly diminish youth unemployment, but those one or two percent will be hard to achieve."
Bedoui is confident that the economy will vastly improve, now that the suffocating grip of Ben Ali and his despised wife Leila Trabelsi, whose family is alleged to have bullied successful businesspeople into "selling" them their companies for a fraction of what they were worth, has been released. Nobody knows for certain just how many firms the ruling clan controlled, Bedoui says. "The corrupt environment, nepotism, the lack of accountability didn't create confidence for investors," he says. Now, he knows of many successful overseas Tunisian businesspeople keen to return home and invest their money where their heart is. That will help create the jobs to restore the dignity so many young Tunisians say they crave. The only shoulders the country's youth say they want to rely on are their own.