Union for Unemployed Graduates (UDC) - Tunisia


Photo courtesy of Nawaat https://goo.gl/T2jJdX


Mission and Purpose

In Tunisia, unemployment generally, and unemployment of youth who are not enrolled in education, employment, or training (NEETs) in particular, is a severe social, economic, and cultural problem. Variance is observable along socio-economic, geographic, and gender indices.

The UDC is the oldest and most important organization that groups unemployed persons in Tunisia under one umbrella. Its slogan: “Work, Freedom, National Dignity” dates back to 2006. It also became the master frame of the Tunisian uprising, also known as the ‘Jasmine Revolution.’ The purpose of the UDC was to fill the vacuum in representation created between the UGET (L'Union générale des étudiants de Tunisie) student’s union and the UGTT (L'Union générale tunisienne du travail) labor union in Tunisia. The creation of the UDC responded to a significant threat to local, independent, and unsanctioned groups dedicated to unemployed graduates in the country. Namely, it was often the case that regime officials would arrest one group without the knowledge of the others. This left all groups vulnerable and without recourse to legal action or counsel. Prior to the organization’s establishment, there was no formal leadership structure or communication strategy for channeling concerns or efforts over the rights of unemployed graduates in Tunisia.


Unemployment in Tunisia

Foreign direct investment (FDI) and trade liberalization policies in the 1990s and 2000s made some small achievements in economic policies, but the outcome served to be especially difficult for those living in the interior regions, youth, and unemployed graduates. Between 2005-2007, FDI reached 13 percent in Tunisia, but after reaching its height at $3.3 billion in 2006, it fell by 54 percent between 2006-2010. As Pfeifer argues, liberalization of FDI was supposed to encourage small to medium enterprises (SMEs) and stimulate job creation, but since foreign direct investment was Gulf-sourced and “favored megaprojects in real estate such as hotels, tourist resorts, and luxury shopping malls, and fully or partially privatized public works, such as ports, airports, and utilities,” they ultimately “created temporary jobs in construction but, except for tourism, few permanent jobs” (Pfeifer 2016, 35).  Thus, even where FDI was committed to labor-intensive manufacturing for export, “the quality of jobs and impact on the domestic economy were questionable” (ibid).

Despite the fact that Tunisia boasts a strong and sizeable middle class and an above-average education compared to many other countries in the region (Arieff and Humud 2015), the mismatch between the demand for private and public sector jobs with the quality and type of education received is a notable problem. Over the past decade, two-thirds of Tunisia’s youth were enrolled in tertiary education. However, after 2000, secondary school course work was geared towards students passing final examinations instead of centering on the skills and knowledge necessary for the job market. This policy shift resulted from the 60-70 percent failure rate in secondary school examinations. Thus, though 64 percent of students passed their final exams in 2011, this change is attributed to alterations in exam rules, not in desirable learning achievements and outcomes (Drisi, 2014). It is no surprise, then, that one-quarter of those NEET are tertiary education graduates (World Bank 2012a; 2012b).

Youth unemployment in Tunisia is currently around 31%, with estimates at around 50% for some cities of the interior (Ben Ali and Saha 2016). According to a recent World Bank (2015) report, in rural areas, 20.6 percent of older men and 46.9 percent of young men are NEET. In urban areas, 13.1 percent of older men and 34.6 percent of young men are NEET. Nearly twice as many young women (60.2 percent) are NEET than men. In urban Tunisia, one-third of young women (32.4 percent) and one-fifth of all young men (20.3 percent) are NEET.

While unemployment rates in Tunisia hovered between 12.5 and 18.3 in the 2006-2011 period, unemployment rates among higher education graduates was 17 percent in 2006 and rose to 29.2 percent in 2011 (Acikoz et al. 2015, 55). As many as 40 percent of the 605,000 unemployed people in Tunisia hold advanced degrees. The Tunisian economy produces around 30,000 new jobs annually for those with bachelor’s degrees. However, its 25 technical institutes and 12 public universities matriculate 70,000 students per year, according to the Ministry of Higher Education. Job recruitment is rife with inequities—a legacy of authoritarianism for which residents of the mining town of Gafsa rose up in 2008 and from which the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ is often said to have sprung. Family connections, bribery, nepotism, and regionalism account for the lion’s share of recruitment inequities (Drisi, 2014).

The Evolution of the UDC

The UDC went through a number of stages of development. Its membership and leadership came overwhelmingly from the ranks of the UGET. The UDC was unofficially founded in 2006, and it became a registered organization with the Ministry of Interior (MOI) only after the successful ouster of Ben Ali in 2011.

In 2004-2005, independent groups and individuals began to protest lack of government accountability, nepotism, and corruption in hiring practices across Tunisia’s governorates. Local chapters of the UDC came into being when members from these independent groups met in Tunis at the beginning of 2005 to discuss their collective grievances over securing the rights of unemployed people. At that time, there were six regional organizations, in: Tunis, Karouan, Beja, Gabes, Gafsa, and Gasserine. These groups established a non-registered and unofficially sanctioned organization in 2006 that remained illegal until 2011.

Between 2006-2008, the Ben Ali regime practiced an admixture of cooptation and ‘capture and release’ tactics with members of the UDC, either tempting local leaderships with job prospects or jailing protesters en masse for short periods of time. Manouba University was a stronghold for the UGET. As such, the UDC would often meet there in order to consult with the UGET and hold its own meetings. The first UDC election took place at Manouba University in April 2006 where the UDC elected 13 members to its leadership council. At that time, its membership agreed upon and documented its internal regulations. On May 25, 2006, the UDC attempted to officially register the organization with the MOI, but their request was denied.  Aymin Rizki, a journalist with Hiwar Tunsi, accompanied the UDC to the MOI in order to document the event. His camera was broken and he was beaten publicly in front of the Ministry. Rizki retold many such incidents in his reportage of the UDC.

Between 2006-7 the UDC scheduled small protests in front of different ministries in the capital. The UDC would often mobilize at 9 April University in order to draw large crowds of support and march to the Kasbah Square (where the Prime Ministry, Ministry of Finance, and City Council are located). Police would respond by flooding the square with armored cars and police officials, but the protesters would lie on the ground to shield groups of protesters for short stints while making public their grievances to onlookers. These and other tactics raised the profile of the organization and garnered local sympathies with those witnessing regime abuse.

In 2008, likely in response to the Gafsa uprising, the regime stepped up its reprisals of UDC protests and began sentencing protesters for up to 5-years. UDC membership and leadership experienced intensifying repression in the form of surveillance, physical violence, jailing, and blacklisting (Interview with Salem Ayari, 2017). As a result, the leadership among regional organizations would often meet in university classrooms, where university police were not permitted, or in crowded public spaces, to avoid detection. One tactic reported in an interview by the author with UDC board member Souhail Idoudi (2017) was to meet in coffee shops while playing cards in order to hide in plain sight. In doing so, police and intelligence officers would be unable to monitor their conversations. At the end of each meeting, those in attendance would agree on a subsequent meeting time and place.

Nonetheless, from 2008 until the revolution, the UDC was able to organize and participate in a number of social movements across the country, extending their networks of influence to Ben Ghardane and Karouan and among local opposition groups. As a result, when the 2010-2011 revolution started the UDC was well positioned to lead protests. Indeed, upon the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid in December, 2010—the single act often attributed as the catalyst to the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ and ‘Arab Spring’—the UDC was one of the first groups to carry out organized protests throughout Tunisia. Upon the ouster of Ben Ali, the UDC was granted legal status in June 18, 2011. At the height of their activism, they were able to mobilized 14,000 people across the country (Interview with Salem Ayari, 2017). 

Organizational Structure and Funding

Upon formalizing the umbrella organization in 2006 (though still illegal), the regional offices of the UDC were able to act in concert with one another and with the support of the UGET, UGTT, LTDH (Ligue Tunisienne pour la Défense des Droits de l'Homme), Tunisian Communist Worker’s Party, and the Tunisian Bar Association, among others, which greatly strengthened their organizational capacity and impact.

Members are restricted to individuals with a post-graduate degree, vocational training, or holders of a training certificate who are unemployed (not working under a full-time contract). Membership costs 3 Tunisian Dinars (TD) every two years. To date, 5000 individuals are registered members of the UDC. 

At present, there are twenty-four bureaus across Tunisia’s twenty-four governorates. Bureaus must have at least five members to be qualified as active. All members are eligible for election to leadership positions.  Leadership positions of local or regional offices are contested in elections. Positions are held for two years. However, if members of the leadership find employment or step down, snap elections can be held. In addition, leadership positions are sometimes granted through consensus. If members of a bureau are not satisfied with the performance of members of the leadership they can hold new elections based on low confidence.

Leadership positions are as follows:

  1. Local Coordinator
  2. Manager of Internal Regulations
  3. Communications Director
  4. Treasurer
  5. Archivist

Regional offices have the autonomy to start any protest they want, about any issue, at any time. The only stipulation according to internal UDC regulations is that the leadership of the regional office in question must sign a document on the proposed action. Oftentimes, one bureau will inform the national office of their proposed action, and solidarity protests will be held in concert with other regions. There is a specific board for the planning and implementation of national meetings that is based on input of the leadership from all the regions. National meetings are held three or four times a year in which the leadership is able to enact new rules. 


Since the UDC was not permitted legal status until 2011, government-sanctioned organizations would be put at risk if they provided the UDC with recordable sources of funding. However, members of the UDC leadership report a number of unofficial and in-kind contributions. Individuals from UGET and UGTT contributed small amounts of money (up to 100 Tunisian Dinars) to fund transportation, printing, meetings and other expenses. The UGTT also helped the UDC to secure office space at minimal rates. The Bar Association provides perhaps the most essential services: pro-bono legal council for members of the UDC. To date, those arrested by the UDC are offered legal representation and advice. Hamma Hammami and his Tunisian Worker’s Communist Party, as well as the party paper (for which Hammami was the editor), al-Badil, influenced the early ideological and organizational makeup of the UDC, in large part due to its support of the UGET.

After the revolution, the UDC received two funding packages from EuroMed. The first allocation provided the UDC with equipment and office space. The second allocation was used for training and leadership programs, including both internal training as well as sessions organized in partnership with the UGTT and LTDH, university professors, and specialists in human resources and conflict management.

Specializations and Activities

The UDC is particularly influential in mobilizing public demonstrations, protests, and coordinating opposition to government policies (Chaine UDC Tunisie). They were one of the first (and only) major associations to hold organized mobilizations across the country prior to, during, and after the revolution. Some of their tactics include protest marches, sit-ins, and hunger strikes. 

Major Projects and Events

Recent examples of the Union's provide evidence of the group's influence and ability to mobilize large numbers of individuals. However, outcomes of these actions are not demonstrable in terms of shifts of government policy.

Sidi Bouzid Protests

On January 18, 2016 citizens of Sidi Bouzid planned a sit-in responding to the lack of government job creation following successive governments and unfulfilled promises. In the process of demonstrating, Ridha Yahyaoui, a 28-year old protester, was accidentally electrocuted to death after climbing a telephone pole. One week following the January 18 sit-in, the UDC, along with the LTDH and UGTT, called for a demonstration in Sidi Bouzid, arguing that the government pledged to hold a meeting with the protestors. “Last week, he promised us a meeting to hear our demands for development and employment. But he cancelled everything at the last minute without giving a valid explanation,” Atef Affi, a UDC member of Sidi Bouzid, reported (Szakal, 2016).

One measurable outcome from the series of hunger strikes that the UDC has supported or helped to organize is the hiring of 180 persons previously among the 774 blacklisted by the Ben Ali regime (African Manager, 2016). According to Salem Ayari, Secretary General of the UDC, the union is in continued talks with the government to have the remaining blacklisted persons removed (Interview with Salem Ayari, 2017).

Mnich Masameh Movement

The UDC and UGET joined the burgeoning Mnich Msameh (“I will not forgive”) movement—a series protests held over government unaccountability and corruption sparked by an economic reconciliation bill that attempts to give amnesty to economic and political elites guilty of administrative and financial crimes under the Ben Ali regime. Those who come forward anonymously to the government must pay a maximum 5% interest rate, along with the original sum, back to the government (Marzouk, 2016); yet there is scant indication that those who have hidden their paper trails well will do so, leaving many to call this an ‘amesty’ rather than a ‘reconcilliation’ (Guellali, 2017). The economic reconciliation bill continues to be one of the most contentious issues in Tunisia. As of May, 2017, the proposed bill has been shot down by parliament twice, largely due to the sustained campaigns against it. At the time of writing, the bill is being rewritten for submission to parliament for a third time.

Expansion in North Africa

The UDC is also in the process of discussing a North African Unemployed Graduate’s Union. They have been in contact with their Moroccan counterpart since 2012, when a conference on unemployed graduates was hosted in Morocco alongside delegations from Italy, Algeria, Spain, Morocco, and France. The last meeting occurred in 2013 in Algeria. However, the meeting was cut short when police detained the Algerian participants and the Tunisian members were expelled back to Tunisia. There are plans to meet at the Youth Social Forum, and the Moroccan Union for Unemployed Graduates are invited to Tunis to attend the UDC’s national meeting this year (2017) to pick up where the discussions left off.  




Secondary Sources

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League of Tunisian Unemployed Graduates, https://www.facebook.com/ligue.tunisienne.defense.diplomes.chomeurs/

Marzouk (2016) - http://www.tunisia-live.net/2016/01/20/tunis-protesters-march-in-support-of-kasserine-protests/

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External Links