By Yanis Iqbal
Protests have been occurring in Tunisia since mid-January 2021. On 26 January, 2021, hundreds of Tunisians marched from Ettadhamen in Tunis to the parliament building in Bardo, calling for the “overthrow of the system” and “development, jobs, freedom and dignity.” As the crowd swelled, the protests became one of the largest this year. The police used barricades, water cannons and violence to stop them from reaching the parliament.
The march to the parliament was called after the death of a protester in Sbeitla a day before. The protester – identified as Haykal Al-Rachdi – was injured by a tear gas canister fired by the police during an earlier demonstration. The call for the protests was given by several parties including the Workers Party, the Democratic Current (Attayar), The United Democratic Patriotic Party and Echaab movement.
Since the beginning of the nightly clashes, more than 1,600 people have been arrested, including activists. Around 600 of those are minors. About 23,000 people in Tunisia are currently in jail, according to recent estimatesby Lawyers Without Frontiers association. These numbers have not decreased over the years.
The Tunisian Revolution
The first round of protests on 14 January, 2021, coincided with the 10th anniversary of the fall of President Ben Ali’s regime. Ali’s removal was the outcome of an intense struggle courageously waged by the masses. On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi – a Tunisian street vendor – set himself on fire following yet another instance of harassment and humiliation at the hands of local police and municipal officials.
Within hours of his self-immolation, protests began erupting across the town, rapidly gathering pace and spreading outwards to other urban centres. Bouazizi’s death was long and agonizing; when he finally died on January 4, 2011, the conflagration sparked by his act roared into the national capital. In a matter of days, Ali was forced into exile.
Tunisia’s people did not only oppose the political authoritarianism of the Ali administration, but also the neoliberal policies under his rule which created massive inequality, unemployment and widespread misery. The ruling class has completely ignored the latter dimension, choosing to impose further neoliberalism in the aftermath of the revolution.
Results have been the same: sustained agitations. In 2015, the protests of the unemployed went from the western Kasserine province to the main avenues of Tunis, the mining area of Gafsa, and Sidi Bouzid, the town that started the Arab Spring. What we are seeing today is the people’s desire to complete the revolution they started in 2010.
In recent years, Tunisia has experienced significant economic problems. The country’s economy shrank almost 9% in 2020 – the largest contraction since its independence in 1953. The official rate of unemployment is 16%. However, the majority of those employed are in seasonal and temporary jobs. Unemployment in the age group of 15 to 25 is over 36%. The International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) Extended Fund Facility imposed several austerity measures, causing the depreciation of the Tunisian dinar in 2017, and consequent inflation has impoverished the popular classes and sharply increased unemployment levels.
The lack of income and employment opportunities has led to the largest exodus of Tunisians from the country in recent years. Tunisians made up the largest number of irregular migrants, over 12,000, who arrived in Italy in 2020 on boats crossing the Mediterranean – five times more than the previous year. Tunisian migrants risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean and if they survive that, they face the European Union’s brutal border regime and racist discrimination in European countries.
Tunisia has a deficit estimated at 11.5% of GDP in 2020 and public debt at 90% of GDP. Consequently, the country will issue debt worth up to $3 billion in 2021. Of this $3 billion, $2.3 billion is expected to come from the IMF. This loan package has its own program of reforms, consisting of cuts to high public wage bill, reduction of subsidies and privatization of some state-owned companies.
In sum, IMF will push for unabated austerity even as protestors decry the insensitive language of “deficit control”. What the IMF is doing is not new. It was involved in two loan agreements in 2013 and 2016 whose conditionality imposed wage freezes, tax increases and spending cuts.
On average, government cabinets in Tunisia have not lasted for more than a year since 2011, and three have succeeded each other in 2020 alone. Political instability has been the norm from the very start of the Tunisian revolution. Following Ali’s departure for Saudi Arabia in the winter of 2011 and the interlude that followed, it was Ennahda that would become the leading party within the first two coalition governments voted in by Tunisia’s electorate.
The first of these governments was led by Hamadi Jebeli, lasting from December 2011 to March 2013. On 19 February, 2013, Jebeli resigned following the growing discontent of the workers and youth against austerity measures, the rising cost of living, regional inequalities, unemployment, taxes, and escalating political violence.
The second was directed by Ali Larayeedh and held power from March 2013 until January 2014. The latter’s mandate collapsed when the combination of persistent social turmoil and the assassinations of two prominent leftist politicians forced the resignation of his government. The Larayeedh government agreed to hand over power to a caretaker government of technocrats, led by Mehdi Jomaa, in early 2014.
A new and relatively progressive and secular constitution was introduced on January 26, 2014, which eliminated the references to Islamic law whilst recognizing Islam as the religion of Tunisia. The constitution-making process occurred against a hypocritical background – the interim government under the directions of IMF kept increasing household electricity and gas prices, as well as fuel prices and taxes that would affect taxi drivers and farmers.
Tired by the neoliberal orientation embraced by both Islamist (manifested in the Ennahda Movement) and secularist political forces, Tunisians have got disillusioned with the post-2011 political arena, trying to find alternative viewpoints. In 2013, public opinion data revealed the following: 74.5% of Tunisians expressed little or no confidence in government, 89.6% expressed little or no confidence in political parties, and 83.4% expressed little or no confidence in parliament.
44.1% of Tunisians strongly agreed that “the government should take more responsibility to ensure that everyone is provided for” – a significant majority backed that same position – and only 3.5% of respondents aligned themselves with the position that “people should take more responsibility to provide for themselves.” 90% of Tunisians strongly agreed that government should constitutionally guarantee social protection and health services to the poor.
30% of Tunisians agreed that taxing the rich to subsidize the poor constitutes an “essential characteristic of democracy” (with an additional 36.5% skewed towards the agree poll, and only 9.9% expressing strong disagreement). 40.2% agreed that state aid for unemployed people is an essential characteristic of democracy (with an additional 35.1% skewing towards that poll, and only 4.5% expressing strong disagreement). 22.1% agreed that income redistribution is an essential characteristic of democracy.
Struggle for Justice
Tunisia has again become a powder keg of economic and political grievances. These grievances are manifesting themselves in protests. Between January 1 and March 22, 2018, data gathered by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Project (ACLED) shows that Tunisia witnessed 207 separate protests. This followed an especially contentious 2017, during which 678 different protests and riots were recorded across the country.
In response to the current protests, Prime Minister Mechichi has reshuffled the cabinet and named 11 new ministers – four of whom are being investigated or suspected of corruption. Tunisians are craving for a real change. Changing the figureheads will not work. As long as the rulers fail to realize this, the oppressed masses of Tunisia will continue to struggle for justice.