SFAX, Tunisia – It only took 10 minutes for Fakher Hmidi to slip out of his house, past the cafes where unemployed men spend their days, and reach the creek through the mud flats where a small boat would ferry him to the migrant ship heading from Tunisia to Italy.
He left late at night, and the first his parents knew of it was the panicked, crying phone call from an Italian mobile number: “The boat is sinking. We’re in danger. Ask Mum to forgive me.”
Hmidi, 18, was one of several people from his Thina district of the eastern city of Sfax among the dozens still unaccounted for in this month’s capsizing off the Italian island of Lampedusa, as ever more Tunisians join the migrant trail to Europe.
His loss, and the continued desire among many young men in Thina to make the same dangerous journey, vividly demonstrate the economic frustration that also drove voters to reject Tunisia’s political elite in recent elections.
In a parliamentary vote on Oct. 6, the day before Hmidi’s boat sank just short of the Italian coast, no party won even a quarter of seats and many independents were elected instead. On Sunday, the political outsider Kais Saied was elected president.
In the Hmidis’ modest home, whose purchase was subsidised by the government and on which the family is struggling to meet the repayment schedule, his parents sit torn with grief.
“Young people here are so frustrated. There are no jobs. They have nothing to do but sit in cafes and drink coffee or buy drugs,” said Fakher’s father, Mokhtar, 55.
Mokhtar lost his job as a driver two years ago and has not been able to find work since. Fakher’s mother, Zakia, sells brik, a fried Tunisian egg snack, to bring in a little extra money. His two elder sisters, Sondes, 29, and Nahed, 24, work in a clothes shop.
Much of the little they had went to Fakher, the family said, because they knew he was tempted by the idea of going to Europe. At night the family would sit on their roof and see the smuggler boats setting off. The seashore was “like a bus station”, they said.
At a cafe near the Hmidis’ home, a few dozen mostly young men sat at tables, drinking strong coffee and smoking cigarettes.
Mongi Krim, 27, said he would take the next boat to Europe if he could find enough money to pay for the trip even though, he said, he has lost friends at sea.
A survey by the Arab Barometer, a research network, said a third of all Tunisians, and more than half of young people, were considering emigrating, up by 50% since the 2011 revolution.
The aid agency Mercy Corps said last year that a new surge of migration from Tunisia began in 2017, a time when the economy was dipping.
Krim is unemployed but occasionally finds a day or week of work as a casual labourer. He points at the pot-holes on the road and says even town infrastructure has declined.
For this and the lack of jobs, he blames the government. He did not vote in either the parliamentary or the presidential election. “Why would I? It is all the same. There is no change,” he said.
Unemployment is higher among young people than anyone else in Tunisia. In the first round of the presidential election on Sept. 15, and in the parliamentary election, in which voter turnout was low, they also abstained by the highest margin.
When an apparently anti-establishment candidate, Kais Saied, went through to the second round of the presidential election on Sunday, young people backed him overwhelmingly.
But their support for a candidate touting a clear break from normal post-revolutionary politics only underscored their frustration at the direction Tunisia took under past leaders.
At the table next to Krim, Haddaj Fethi, 32, showed the inky finger that proved he had voted on Sunday. “I cannot imagine a young man who would not have voted for Saied,” he said.
On the bare patch of mud by the creek where Fakher Hmidi took the boat, some boys were playing. For them, the migration to Europe is – as it was for Hmidi – a constant background possibility in a country that offers them few other paths.
At the time of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, they had great hope, Mohkhtar Hmidi said. But economically, things got worse. Fakher found little hope in politics, he said.
Despite the apparent surge of young support for Saied as president, he has been careful to make no promises about what Tunisia’s future holds, only to pledge his personal probity and insist that he will rigidly uphold the law.
The economy is in any case not the president’s responsibility, but that of a government formed by parties in the parliament, whose fractured nature will make coalition building particularly difficult this year.
Any government that does emerge will face the same dilemmas as its predecessors – tackling high unemployment, high inflation, a lower dinar and the competing demands of powerful unions and foreign lenders.
An improvement would come too late for the Hmidi family, still waiting nearly two weeks later for confirmation that their only son has drowned.
“Fakher told me he wanted to go to France. ‘This is my dream,’ he said to me. ‘There is no future here. You can’t find a job. How can I?’,” Mokhtar said, and his wife started to cry.