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‘Social justice and work’: Tunisians rise up again


Ettadhamen, Tunisia – Ten years after Tunisians rose up against poverty and autocracy and removed a dictator, demonstrators are again demanding the social and economic reforms they were promised.

“We are out on the streets because we want social justice and work,” explained Chabib from Ettadhamen, a densely populated working-class district on the outskirts of the capital Tunis and one of the epicentres of the recent unrest in Tunisia.

Chabib, 34, is one of many who have taken part in night-time clashes with security forces in disadvantaged areas of Tunis and 15 other cities across the country since last Saturday. His name has been changed to protect from reprisals by police.

The unrest, broadly presented simply as “vandalism and looting” by the government, erupted two days after the 10th anniversary of the 2011 uprising that overthrew longtime leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and amid a four-day lockdown imposed by authorities, purportedly to curb COVID-19 infections, but which many protesters said was aimed at preventing demonstrations.

The nightly confrontations have seen protesters pelt police with stones and burn tyres to block streets, while there have also been some reports of property damage and looting, triggering a heavy-handed response from Tunisian authorities.

Police have fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse youth at night, and the National Guard has been deployed across several governorates. Civil society organisations say security forces have arrested some 1,000 people, prompting peaceful daytime protests for their release.

Protesters block a street during clashes with security forces in Ettadhamen on January 17 [File: Fethi Belaid/AFP]

Political instability

If this kind of unrest is not the first since Ben Ali’s fall, these riots take place in an unprecedented context, said Michael Ayari, International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Tunisia.

“What we are witnessing currently is a multifaceted crisis stemming from political and economic vulnerabilities over two decades in the making,” explained Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations and contemporary Middle East studies at the London School of Economics.

While the 2011 uprising is not responsible for this crisis, the new political class has failed dismally to address it, he added, and the gravity of the socioeconomic crisis is now overwhelming the political sphere.

Ten years after the revolution, Tunisia has a highly dysfunctional political system, a broken economy, and a “bickering political class that is petty, short-sighted, and highly tribalised”, Gerges continued.

On average, cabinets have not lasted for more than a year since 2011, and three have succeeded each other last year alone. Meanwhile, the economy has dipped.

Politicians are so busy fighting for their share of the cake, Gerges argued, they do not seem to understand the gravity of the socioeconomic crisis afflicting the country.

“They don’t realise that Tunisia is in tatters, sailing on a rough sea, and if they don’t steady the ship, everyone will drown.”

The next few days are going to be critical, he warned. “We are going to see either greater mobilisation or a brief truce. But either way, the protests are not going away.”

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For him, much of what happens next now hinges on the government’s and the security forces’ response. Unless the legitimate grievances of the protesters are heard and the structural conditions that have given rise to this crisis are addressed, Tunisia is likely to witness more demonstrations.

‘It’s not a revolution’

Yet so far the government’s response has been to downplay the unrest while condemning nightly clashes with security forces as vandalism and petty crime, demonstrating either its refusal to acknowledge the political meaning the protests and riots carry, or its imperviousness to the worsening socioeconomic crisis gripping the country.

The reaction of Khemaies Younes, the deputy governor of Ettadhamen, is a case in point.

“When the youth protest, they usually have clear demands. But this time they don’t have any – none,” he exclaimed in disbelief.

“What we’ve seen here is simply vandalism and looting by a minority of young people. It’s not a revolution,” he said, echoing a statement made by interior ministry spokesman Khaled Hayouni earlier this week.

Pressed on the motivations of the protesters, Younes tentatively added: “Maybe the youth were frustrated because the cafés and the schools closed during the lockdown. Or perhaps it’s because the celebrations of their football club’s anniversary had to be cancelled. It’s true we have some issues with youth unemployment in Ettadhamen, and I know we’ve had protests in the past in Tunisia about social and economic issues, but that’s not what happening here.”

‘Sick and tired’

But speaking to protesters, one hears a different story.

“We want to live with dignity and for the youth to stop risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean in hope of a better life. Ten years after the fall of Ben Ali, we are sick and tired of having to ask for the same basic things,” Chabib said with exasperation, referring to the “freedom, work, and dignity” slogan of the 2011 uprising.

Chabib is hardly alone in this. According to a survey of 805 young people aged 18-30 in four districts of Tunis released by the NGO Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights and Lawyers Without Borders last November, nearly three-quarters feel their voice is not heard in their country, and nearly 80 percent think the state does not meet their economic needs.

Another 57 percent consider they are victims of state violence.

Chabib acknowledged “a few things got broken on the first night” of the unrest, though he said he and fellow protesters decided to revert to peaceful demonstrations in the aftermath.

“But the police kept on firing tear gas, they don’t care that it’s asphyxiating babies and the elderly in the neighbourhood,” he added, in an effort to explain why the demonstrations turned violent again. “They treat us with so much hatred and disdain.”

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At 34, Chabib has been unemployed for years, despite holding a computer network technician diploma. “Every time I apply for a job, they tell me I need experience. But to gain experience I need a job. It’s a catch 22.”

According to estimates by the International Labour Organization, more than one-third of Tunisians below 25 were unemployed as of last year, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the severity of the economic crisis and Tunisians’ suffering.

Millions who cheered for the revolution in 2011 have since seen their economic wellbeing deteriorate, Gerges said.

“Successive governments have failed dismally to alleviate poverty and unemployment, and to provide opportunities and hope. They have failed to tell people ‘there will be calm after the storm, there will be a new dawn’.”

In a recent poll, more than 40 percent of young Tunisians expressed an interest in leaving their country to seek a decent living, Gerges added, a trend amply illustrated last year. In 2020, Italian authorities recorded nearly 13,000 Tunisians migrating irregularly across the Mediterranean Sea, marking a near fivefold increase compared with 2019, and making them the largest group of nationals arriving in the country that year.

Empty promises

In Ettadhamen, an area long overlooked by the government, the COVID-19 lockdowns have hit people hard. “The government said it would help us, but it was just empty promises. I can’t see a single glimmer of hope on the horizon any more,” Chabib said, adding the situation has worsened steadily for several months now.

Precarious odd jobs constitute the main source of revenue for most of Ettadhamen’s inhabitants. With no safety nets or savings to fall back on, the lockdown imposed last week by the government was the final straw.

“If you lock us up at home, we can’t work and if we can’t work we can’t eat,” said Chabib. “The government doesn’t care about us. To them, it’s like we don’t exist. But I am warning them, the starving citizens are rising up, and they should fear hungry people.”

The government would do well to heed Chabib’s warning, Gerges advised. By failing to acknowledge this crisis, the authorities are adding fuel to the fire, he said, adding unless the government levels with the people, the next elections might witness a shift in electoral fortunes.

According to him, if Tunisia’s political class fails to address this grave socioeconomic crisis, there is a “real danger” in the medium term the country may face a return to political authoritarianism, like others have in the region.

“Large numbers of young men and women in Tunisia feel disenfranchised, excluded, desperate, and forgotten. This is breeding ground for political forces nostalgic of Ben Ali’s repressive regime.”

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Nostalgia for authoritarianism

In a report published last November by the NGO Project on Middle East Democracy, Anne Wolf, a research fellow at Oxford University, warned that counter-revolution was gaining momentum in Tunisia.

Indeed, Abir Moussi, a former ruling party official under Ben Ali who openly praises the old regime, has emerged as one of Tunisia’s most influential politicians since her election in 2019.

“At a time when broad sections of Tunisian society feel disenchanted by persistent unemployment, governance gridlock and insecurity, Moussi’s populist anti-revolution rhetoric is gaining ground,” the report said.

Moussi is instrumentalising the country’s woes to beautify her political project and convince Tunisians that post-2011 freedoms and a lack of top-down authority are to blame, Gerges explained. “She is trying to use this crisis to capture the state and its institutions through the polling box, and her movement is gaining traction,” he said.

Security forces in Ettadhamen clash with demonstrators on January 18 [File: Fethi Belaid/AFP]

Yet Gerges remains hopeful. “I want to believe Tunisians can’t be fooled so easily into trading their newly won freedoms for political authoritarianism.”

In the short term, what the next days and weeks will be made of remains uncertain as of yet, said Ayari. If unrest goes on in the following days, the police and the National Guard could become overwhelmed and exceed in their response, he warned.

In such a scenario, it is also possible the army would intervene as it did in 2011 to separate security forces from rioters, Ayari explained. On the other hand, if the riots stop, the national dialogue proposed in December by the main trade union and political power-broker UGTT could be the best solution, as long as it is sufficiently inclusive, he added.

Meanwhile, Tunisia remains in the eye of the storm and steadying the ship is going to be a tall order.

“The crisis is severe, the pain is real, the political class is dysfunctional, and it doesn’t seem to want to put its own house in order,” said Gerges.

While he said the mobilisation seemed to be slightly on the wane, he forewarned Tunisia is likely to witness more protests. “And if not next week, then in the next few months. This is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Asked what the future holds, Chabib said he and fellow protesters in Ettadhamen were ready to keep the demonstrations going until their voices are heard.

“If only the government would listen to us instead of sending convoys of armoured vehicles and tear gas. But they’re afraid of what we have to say,” he explained. “So let them hear this: we are the ones who voted them in and we are the ones who will remove them from power.”

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