On January 8, protests broke out across Tunisia against new austerity measures put in place by the 2018 budget, the effects of which will be exacerbated by Tunisia’s struggling economy. On January 14, the anniversary of the ousting of the entrenched dictator Ben Ali, the protests gained new life. This date marks the success of the 2011 Arab Spring protests in Tunisia, but many feel that, despite the relative democratization of the country, the goals of the Tunisian Revolution have yet to be met. Economic deprivation was the main catalyst behind the 2011 protests and is a problem that is still not resolved: today, Tunisians still struggle to support themselves due to pressure to repay foreign loans, political instability, and economic strife.
In December 2010, the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi in response to police brutality sparked the Arab Spring. Over the course of the following year, a wave of protests against the lack of economic opportunities and political freedoms toppled regimes across the Middle East. In Tunisia, these protests forced Ben Ali, Tunisia’s dictator since 1989, to flee, making room for a democratic form of government to take his place.
Before 2011, Tunisia was an autocracy, where Ben Ali kept his grip on power by suppressing political freedoms. Now, as a result of successful protests, Tunisia has credible democratic elections and peaceful exchanges of power between political parties. Further, in 2014, Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly wrote and passed a new constitution, which ensures democratic elections, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press.
Despite this progress, Tunisians remain largely dissatisfied with their government. The current government has ties to the same elite that had a monopoly on power and economic opportunity under Ben Ali. In 2014, the first election year since the Revolution, nearly 80 percent of Tunisians ages 18–24 did not vote, largely due to a movement to boycott the elections because of the new government’s failure to address structural inequality and corruption. Instead of responding to these popular calls for reform, Tunisia’s Parliament has allowed new ministers into the cabinet who have ties to the old regime and has granted impunity to civil servants who were involved in Ben Ali’s corrupt government.
The escalation of economic strife since the Revolution has further aggravated this widespread discontent. Since the fall of Ben Ali, there have been nine different governments in power. This chronic instability has made the government unable to address the economic concerns
that first pushed Tunisians to protest in 2011. The rising inflation rate makes it difficult for Tunisians to meet their most basic expenses, especially considering the 15 percent unemployment rate for the population as a whole and the 35 percent unemployment rate for those under twenty-five. Terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016 further derailed the economy by undermining the tourism sector which accounts for 14 percent of Tunisia’s GDP. Though the tourism sector has been gradually recovering, there remains the constant risk of an attack that could topple it again.
Tunisia is also heavily indebted to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), adding to the unstable government’s inability to ease its people’s economic strife. After the Revolution, the new government received substantial loans from the IMF. In 2016, for example, the IMF gave Tunisia a $2.9 billion loan, but required that Tunisia reduce its energy subsidies, which has raised the cost of living during a time of economic strain. Despite criticism that its insistence on the full repayment of the loans is undermining the stability of the region, the IMF has not allowed Tunisia to renegotiate its foreign public debt, which now amounts to 73 percent of its GDP.
It is because of this growing pressure from the IMF that the Tunisian government has put even more austerity measures into place in 2018. The measures include value-added taxes on phone cards, hotels, the internet, gasoline, and fruits and vegetables. The new budget also reduced government subsidies, which will lead to even higher commodity prices, yet it included no response to the high unemployment and mounting inflation.
Beginning on January 8, thousands poured into the streets across Tunisia to protest this budget. January 14—the date that Ben Ali fled in 2011 and a symbol of discontent with the post-2011 government—gave the protests new life. Some of the protests turned into violent riots that resulted in police injuries, the burning of government buildings, and the death of at least one demonstrator. The protesters are largely unemployed, but educated, youths who use social media to coordinate and who informally identify themselves as “Fech Nestannew” (“What are we waiting for?”). They are angry that the government is ignoring the lack of economic opportunity that is plaguing the young. However, this movement lacks the organizational power of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) that helped turn the grassroots protests of 2011 into a successful revolution. In 2011, the UGTT’s offices became meeting spaces for protesters to make banners and discuss tactics, and the organization repurposed its bureaucracy from coordinating strikes to coordinating nationwide protests. Unfortunately for today’s protesters, today’s demonstrations have no such help from any large, influential groups.
In response to the recent protests, the Tunisian government deployed the army to cities where protesters had forced the police to retreat and arrested over 770 protesters. Humans rights activists have raised concerns about the legitimacy of the charges, showing the limits of the political rights gained by Tunisians after the Revolution. However, along with this crackdown, the government has made some concessions: while keeping the 2018 budget intact, it has passed $70 million of social reforms to address economic deprivation, including government-provided medical aid for unemployed youths, increased funding for public housing, and increased assistance to families in poverty.
Between the crackdown and the concessions, the protesters’ numbers have been steadily going down since last week. However, while the government has temporarily quelled the discontent, the concessions ignored the inequality and corruption that are at the root of the steady stream of protests since the Revolution. The wide geographical spread of these protests in comparison to the previous waves of demonstrations since 2011 shows that the people’s dissatisfaction is mounting. Unless there is structural reform, Fech Nestannew may build into a movement on the same scale as the 2011 Revolution. However, for these protests to reach this level of success, Fech Nestannew must be more than a movement. It needs to build the organizational power that UGTT provided to the 2011 protests. Getting people into the streets is not enough to affect large scale change; rather, protesters need to have a way to coordinate and strategize on a national scale.
Claire Potter is a Staff Writer for the Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons and can be found here.
Claire Potter is a first-year potential political science major at the University of Chicago interested in journalism and international relations. On campus, she is a member of the Women in Public Service Project and is a Fellows Ambassador at the Institute of Politics. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, reading, and exploring the city.