Tunisia lives a new wave of massive protests since the beginning of January, celebration of the 7 years of the revolution that defeated Ben Ali – the dictator that ruled the country for over two decades and currently lives in Saudi Arabia despite being sentenced to over 35 years of prison by a Tunisian Court.
By Gabriel Huland.
The protests are massive, with major participation of young people from the poorest neighborhoods and several cities. The demonstrations are being called through the social media by a recently emerged movement called Fech Nestannew (What are we waiting for?)
The main demand is the immediate derogation of the budget law for 2018, effective after being passed, in the end of 2017, with the support of the two parties that form the coalition that governs the country since 2014 (a recycling of old representatives of the former regime) and Ennahda (bourgeois party that identifies as moderate Islamist, and that recently took some distance from Islamic fundamentalism.)
The left Popular Front, an electoral coalition formed by groups of diverse origins, like Maoism, Arabian Nationalism, Stalinism, and others, voted –surprisingly- supporting the law. The UGTT, main Federation in the country, which was once part of the transitional government post-Ben Ali, also supported the law, and so generated the outrage of many activists.
New regime, old practices
The new budget law implies a rise in the prices of basic products like gas and food, as well as the suspension of the hiring process by the State (public workers.) The goal is to reduce the public deficit –currently, 6% of the GDP- to 4.9% in 2018. Austerity measures are part of a plan imposed by the IMF in exchange of a USD $2.9 million and are very much like the ones implemented in other countries like Egypt, Greece, and Iran. It is a well-known path and we know where it leads.
The Tunisian people’s lives worsened over the last years. Despite the political change after the approval of the new constitution, in 2014, the concentration of power and wealth in a reduced economic elite with bonds with the US, European, and other countries’ capital, remained unaltered. The problems that motivated a revolution in December 2010 were not solved.
Unemployment affects 15% of the population and over 30% of youth has no job. Other problems strongly felt by the population are corruption, inflation, and low salaries. Especially for the youth, which has no prospects, so many prefer to risk their lives in the Mediterranean looking for a better life in Europe.
According to a group of independent researchers, around 50% of the Tunisian economy is unregulated and develops in the informal sector. Businessmen do not pay taxes, and workers do not receive any kind of compensation if they are fired.
Another factor of economic instability is the crisis in the tourism industry, one of the main ones in the country before the revolution, as it concentrated an important part of the labor force. Industry declined about 60% since 2011, mainly because of the two terrorist attempts that took the lives of dozens of people.
On the other hand, the same oligarchs of always still concentrate the biggest part of the country’s wealth, reaching exorbitant profits at the expense of the misery and despair of most of the population. The change of regime after the revolution caused barely a rearrangement of the dominant classes in new parties that do not care about promoting a true socio-economic transformation.
Government responds to the protests with bombs and repression
The demonstrations that began in January are confronting a brutal repressive escalade by the government and State Security Forces. The UN released a report a few days ago –quoted by Al Jazeera- according to which more than 800 people were detained since the beginning of the protests, 200 of them are youth between 15 and 18 years old.
The prison population in Tunisia is one of the highest in the world, reaching 1% of the total population. Criminalization of protests takes place through a government and media’s campaign, falsely accusing the protestors of having a violent, illegal profile. The goal of this seedy campaign is to deviate the attention from the real problems and from the demonstrators’ demands, to impose a situation of fear and cut of democratic freedoms.
The Fech Nestannew movement took distance from the vandal and violent actions. However, it denounced the existence of infiltrated agents in the protests, paid by the regime, to incite violence and so justify the repression. It is a common practice since the times of Ben Ali, and it continues until nowadays, not only in Tunisia but in other countries like Egypt and Syria. In the West Bank [Palestine,] for example, the Israeli army uses similar methods against the Palestinians confronting the occupation. In the peripheral neighborhoods of Tunisia, the clashes between the demonstrators and the police happen systematically, and almost always the first provocation comes from the security forces.
Disillusion with the new-old-regime grows
Tunisia is acknowledged across the world, by the media and governments interested in holding the situation in North Africa, as the only country of the Middle East and North of Africa where the “Arab Spring” had a happy ending. By “happy ending” they mean a democratic transition that gave birth to a new type of regime: modern, liberal, and consistent with some alleged Western value of democracy, free market, and freedom of expression.
Nothing is farther from reality. It is true that there was a regime change, from a dictatorial, monolithic, de facto dictatorial regime of one party, to a multi-partisan regime with regular elections. The Tunisian people got some democratic concessions through its heroic revolution. The regime change, however, did not come with a real transformation of the economic system and the concentration of wealth. As said before, the permanence of this system, highly unequal, generates a series of contradictions and will cause, inevitably, deep economic, political, and social crisis.
The two more important parties in Tunisia are, currently, Nidaa Tounis and Ennahda. They both defend a similar economic program for Tunisia to remain a country that depends on foreign capital, through primary goods export and import of industrialized products.
Nidaa Tounis is the coutry that represents the continuation of the old regime, while Ennahda is more aligned with fundamentalist ideas, although it considers itself more moderate and democratic. Nidaa Tounis won the election in 2014 and made a coalition government with Ennahda under the presidency of Beji Caid Essebi, a political mummy, of 90 years old.
The current demonstrations express an advance process of disillusion with the new system and parties. The perception of a growing portion of the population is that nothing changed since 2011. Inflation, low wages, lack of prospects for most of the working people, while the same ones of yesterday remain in power and corruption generalizes. Despite the promises of economic reforms, with the average Tunisian feels everyday is the reduction of his/her purchasing power and the impossibility of finding a job.
Even the party representing the left in the regime, the Popular Front, seems to encourage the illusions, although it channeled a great percentage of the social discontent in the election. The main Tunisian Union, UGTT, played a sad role in the Tunisian revolutionary process –and so it won the Nobel Peace Prize- of negotiating with the main political parties to stop the social movement.
The experience with the new regime advances, but there is still no organization with influence and social roots able to channel the discontent by giving a political revolutionary form, with the prospect of a deep tranformation of the political and economic powers.
Salafism has been the major benefitiary of the social discontent with the political parties, as Gilbert Achcar explains:
Salafism began to grow after the Tunisian uprise as a result of the frustration of expectations, after Ben Ali’s fall; especially because the workers’ movement –the powerful Tunisian General Union, also known as UGTT, by far the most important organized social movement in the country- and the Tunisian left –fusioned in the Popular Front and hegemonic in the UGTT leadership since 2011- did not channel this frustration. In the same way, dissention emerged within Ennhada, among the members more sensitive to the Salafist pressure and those more moderated. [Achcar, 2016]
Nevertheless, these political-religious currents, highly reactionary and that will never be a valid democratic alternative for the Tunisian people, are not the only ones that dispute the consciousness and leadership of the current struggles. There are independent groups, like the previsouly mentioned Fech Nestannew, participating of these struggles and representing a prgressive pehonomena that must be supported and ecnouraged.
Demonstrations in Tunisia are part of a new wave of struggles all across the region. Iran, Morroco, Sudan, Palestine, Kurdistan, and Tunisia are some of the countries and regions in struggles. An important part of the population of these countries is once again disposed to go out onto the streets to defend dignified living conditions. The Arab Revolutions, with highs and lows, are still alive.
 Our translation.
Achcar, G., 2016. Morbid symptoms : relapse in the Arab uprising. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California.