Old Wounds Take Tunisians Back to Streets Again

Tunisian protesters are seen in the Djebel Lahmer district of the capital Tunis early on January 10, 2018 in a second night of unrest driven by anger over austerity measures. Photo: AFP

Seven years after Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, Tunisians still feel a sense of outrage towards the government as a new wave of protests has shown this week, highlighting the country’s worsening economic circumstances.

Since Monday, protests have erupted in at least twenty different locations, including the tourist destinations of Sousse and Hammamet.

So far, one protester has been killed by security forces – which triggered further demonstrations – while at least 50 police officers injured and over 600 arrested.

More protests are planned for later this week. They are mostly in response to raised taxes on gasoline, phone cards, internet usage, hotel rooms and even fruits and vegetables, as part of a new government budget announced on January 1.

Tunisia’s main opposition party Al Jabha calls for the protests to continue until authorities drop the new budget.

The demonstrations are not spontaneous or unexpected however. Due to Tunisia’s economic woes, which had not improved after the revolution, public anger has built up over several years, and has merely erupted after this recent announcement.

“These protests are not only understandable but entirely predictable and foreseeable; the cost of living has increased, with government services strained and increasingly so, and although wages have also gone up across the board, the dinar has taken such a dive that it’s been impossible to avoid the spike in the prices of goods,” Mariem Masmoudi, a Tunis-based civil rights activist, told The Globe Post.

Recent protests over deteriorating economic concerns in Tunisia have left one dead and hundreds more detained. Photo: Reuters

“Additionally, of course, the government is in great debt and has started to lift subsidies (on food products, etc), and this has caused great and direct difficulty in everyday life,” Ms. Masmoudi noted. 

She added that this move is a poor governmental response to dealing with its own economic stagnation, which therefore impacts Tunisian lives.

“These demonstrations are not isolated, but a continuation of previous cycles of demonstrations in recent months going back at least one year. This is just the latest and greatest, in terms of scale, geographic distribution, as well as vandalism and destruction,” Ms. Masmoudi said.

tunisia ben ali timeline unrest
Timeline of events in Tunisia following the fall of president Ben Ali in January 2011.

Since the revolution which sought democratization and improved living conditions, Tunisians have felt increasingly disenfranchised with the government. The Ennahda Party, which assumed power after the 2011 elections and has been in coalition with Nidaa Tounes since 2014, has often been criticized for mismanaging the economy.

Young Tunisians – who make up a large amount of the protestors – especially feel increasingly isolated from the new regime: an estimated 80 percent of 18-25 year olds boycotted the 2014 elections.

While the revolution aimed to bring about greater economic improvement, Lina Ben Mhenni, a Tunisian blogger and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, told The Globe Post that life has actually deteriorated for Tunisians. She claimed that people are merely acting on deep frustrations that have been brewing for some time.

“The situation is worse when it comes to the economy. Living standards are deteriorating. The rate of unemployment is getting higher, and wages are poor. The 2018 financial act is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. The austerity measures caused anger [among]  a huge number of citizens. This is why they are protesting,” Ms. Ben Mhenni said.

“The government should deal with the protests seriously and find effective ways to communicate with the citizens.”

Tunisian activist and blogger Lina Ben Mhenni argues that pent up frustrations over poor economic conditions have led to the recent protests. Photo: Huffpost Tunisie

Tunisia faced heavy protests last year, including for several months in the southern city of Tataouine. Thousands rallied in the city against mass unemployment and low wages, only to be met by a police crackdown, which killed one and injured dozens.

Despite the role of economic concerns in the protest, Ms. Masmoudi and others hold deeper suspicions that outside forces like the UAE could act to inflame the tensions, and use the turmoil to their advantage. Ms. Masmoudi feels this may have already happened particularly in light of the attack on Tunisia’s historic Jewish community of Djerba.

After all, the protests follow a diplomatic row between the UAE and Tunisia, which took place after the UAE “temporarily” banned Tunisian women from entering for “security measures”. In response, Tunisia banned Emirates Airlines from landing in the country.

In November 2015, the UAE threatened to destabilize Tunisia for “not acting in the interests of Abu Dhabi”, a high-level Tunisian source told the Middle East Eye.

Medhi el Behi, an independent Tunisian researcher, fears that this unrest could develop and negatively impact Tunisia’s already struggling economy and tourism sector.

“The latest budget comes at a time when Tunisia’s economy is struggling. Its important tourism sector has not yet recovered following the terror attacks in Sousse in 2015,” Mr. El Behi told The Globe Post.

“Inflation also runs at about 6 percent a year, which eats away at people’s earnings, and the tax hikes will hit those with the least money the hardest.”

“To me the protests have raised fears of wider unrest in Tunisia and this may have a negative effect on the tourism industry and on the value of the Tunisian Dinar,” he added.

While Tunisia’s tourism industry has suffered since the 2015 attacks, it had showed signs of recovery before the protests.

Tunisia’s Prime Minister-designate Youssef Chahed has not addressed protestor’s concerns. Photo: Reuters

Instead of this latest budget, which has clearly inflamed tensions, Mr. El Behi calls for Tunisia to solve its economic difficulties with other means, which would impact peoples’ everyday lives less.

“The government is saying that these rises are necessary to help the country’s economy grow, but I believe that there are many other ways to do so, such as reducing a lot of unnecessarily expenses in certain areas and privatizing some of loss making money national companies as Tunisiar.”

The Tunisian government did not immediately respond to requests for comments for this article.

Prime Minister Youssef Chahed however said in response to the protests: “[the demonstrations] could not be considered a way of protest, but acts of theft, looting and attacks on Tunisians’ properties,” without addressing the protestor’s concerns.

“The only solution for confronting those involved in looting and attacks on Tunisians and their properties is applying the law.”