Poverty and hopelessness beget violence in Tunisia's suburbs

FILE - In this Jan. 19, 2021 file photo, demonstrators face police officers during clashes in Ettadhamen City near Tunis. Protests have swept towns and cities throughout Tunisia for a week, often turning to violence 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. (AP Photo/Hassene Dridi, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 19, 2021 file photo, demonstrators face police officers during clashes in Ettadhamen City near Tunis. Protests have swept towns and cities throughout Tunisia for a week, often turning to violence 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. (AP Photo/Hassene Dridi, File) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

TUNIS – Protests have swept towns and cities throughout Tunisia for a week, often turning to violence 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 some 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.

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.