Price hikes sparked clashes in the Tunisian capital Tunis at the start of January ©Xinhua News Agency/PA Images
Price hikes sparked clashes in the Tunisian capital Tunis at the start of January ©Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

What's behind Tunisia's street protests?

30 January 2018

Give us jobs or kill us. That is the direct challenge many of Tunisia’s disaffected youth have issued to a government trying to defy public protests and stick to austerity measures.

Montasser Khedher, an unemployed 24-year-old who lives in Ettadhamen, an impoverished neighborhood in greater Tunis, explained the demand to Al Jazeera: “If they’re not going to give us jobs, it’s better that they kill us, at least then we’ll be able to rest.” Such despair, shared by many of Khedher’s contemporaries, suggests that, seven years after a revolution that launched the ‘Arab Spring’, something is rotten in the state of Tunisia.

On 17 December 2010, fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself in protest after police confiscated his scales because he refused to pay a bribe.

That sacrifice in Sidi Bouzid, a small, dusty, provincial Tunisian town, triggered a revolt across North Africa and the Middle East.

In Tunisia itself, Bouazizi’s death inspired the Jasmine Revolution, in which the young, the unemployed and the economically disadvantaged helped overthrow autocratic president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Ben Ali was probably mystified by the popular resentment. Between 1986 and 2008, Tunisia’s per capita GDP had more than tripled. Official estimates suggested that he had almost halved the percentage of Tunisians living in poverty over the same period. Yet it was widely suspected that much of the country’s wealth was benefitting Ben Ali and his brother-in-law, businessman Belhassen Trabelsi. The rewards of economic growth were certainly unevenly distributed: when Ben Ali was toppled, 85% of Tunisia’s 15-35 year olds were unemployed.

The revolution transformed Tunisia, ushering in a pluralistic democracy – in 2015 the country’s National Dialogue Quarter, which helped build the new political system, won the Nobel Peace Prize. Transparency International has praised the government for defining a national anti-corruption strategy and letting the Anti-Corruption Agency do its job.

That said, the administration has since backtracked, offering an amnesty for those who previously stole public money. Also, even though the 2014 constitution guarantees freedom of speech, MP Yassine Ayari is being threatened with trial by military court for criticising the army.

Unfortunately, with nine governments in seven years, Tunisia’s new system has found it harder to resolve the social and economic grievances behind the Jasmine Revolution. Two deadly terror attacks in 2015 added to the country’s economic burden. Tourism revenue plunged by 35% that year and has not fully recovered. (Most foreign tourists now come to Tunisia on all-in deals, which don’t help the local economy much.) They have also deterred foreign direct investment which employs 15% of the country’s workforce.

The latest protests have been provoked by an austerity budget raising taxes on petrol and mobile phones and cutting food subsidies. At a time when unemployment stands at around 32%, inflation is running at 6% and wages are stagnant, such proposals were never going to be popular but they are deemed to be the price the government must pay after accepting a $2.9bn IMF loan in 2016. Tunisia has been before – an IMF/World Bank-directed austerity programme in 1983/84 sparked the Bread Riots, prompting a swift government U-turn.

Once again, a fatal gesture of defiance turned discontent into passionate protest: in a small town on the border with Algeria, repair man Radwan Abbassi, who had spent so long trying to find a job he had a three-ring binder full of application letters, hung himself. The day before, officials at the local employment office had turned Abbassi away and, when he got angry, asked the police to handcuff him.

Heythem Guesmi, leader of a movement called Manich Msamahm (which means I Will Not Forgive), has denounced the budget for making “the rich richer and the poor poorer”. So far, nearly 800 people have been arrested and at least one person has died in the protests. The government has tried to placate the public with talk of higher welfare payments and a plan to guarantee healthcare. Further concessions are possible, if the country’s central bank, granted more independence in 2016, is in agreement.

It is not clear where Tunisia goes from here. Tougher military action could drive the protesters off the streets but it won’t address their grievances. Their chief complaint is, as activist Hashem Sghairi told the Wall Street Journal: “People’s hope is hitting the wall. Revolt is a path, a path that we’re still on.” At the same time, many activists are hesitant to call for a change of regime fearing a military coup.

One of the most popular slogans during the latest unrest – and the name of one of the protest movements – is: “What are we waiting for?” At the moment, no one in Tunisia – whether they are politicians, generals or activists – can answer that question.

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