Q&A: Tunisia's protest leaders vow to keep up pressure

Q&A: Tunisia's protest leaders vow to keep up pressure
From Al Jazeera - January 14, 2018

Tunis, Tunisia - Large protests broke out across Tunisia this month over a government decision to impose strict economic and tax reforms that increased the price of basic goods.

The anti-austerity protests come as Tunisians mark the seventh anniversary of the fall of longtime leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was forced from power after a popular revolution in 2011.

Rallies have been held in Tunis, the capital, and elsewhere across the country, led by the civil movement Fech Nestannew (What are we waiting for?).Nearly 800 protesters have been arrested, according to United Nations figures, including 200 people between the ages of 15 and 20.

A 2016 deal between Tunisia and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is a large reason behind the austerity measures, critics say.The four-year, $2.8bn IMF loan is tied to a promise by the Tunisian government to carry out economic and social reforms.

The government's 2018 budgetary law, which came into effect this month, has been the focus of protesters' anger, as it brought price hikes to basic goods, such as food and gas, and the value-added tax.

Al Jazeera spoke to Tunis-based protest organiser Warda Atig, 25, about how the Fech Nestannew movement came about, its demands, and whether the Tunisian government may revise its economic policies.

Al Jazeera: What is the idea behind Fech Nestannew?

Warda Atig: Fech Nestannew is a movement created by Tunisian youth after the government's finance act of 2018 came into effect. Following this act, the prices went up and the state stopped recruiting for public sector jobs.

That's why we decided to create this movement, in order to push the government to cancel this financial measure.

Al Jazeera:How did your protests begin and when?

Atig: When we first heard about this law, in November and December of last year, several youth factions from the different progressive political parties organised discussions [about] what the law was and what the impact of the law would be on society.

We were waiting for the government to make the law official and we chose the date of our first action to be January 3. The date is very symbolic because on January 3, 1984, there was the Intifada al-Khubez [bread uprising] in Tunisia [over an increase to the price of bread].

On January 3, we made a declaration in front of the municipal theatre [on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in downtown Tunis] and we distributed pamphlets with our demands. We were about 50 activists.

Al Jazeera:What are those demands?

Atig: We want the government to end the increase in prices, cancel the moratorium on recruiting in the public sector, provide security and healthcare, end privatisation and put forward a national strategy to counter corruption.

These demands [are in response to] decisions taken by the government[and] they are within the context of the finance act of 2018. So we are asking [the government] to cancel this act.

If they do not cancel it, they will privatise national companies, they will not fight corruption, they will continue to increase prices. We are explaining to people that we have to say no to this act.

Al Jazeera:Protests have taken place across Tunisia. How did these different regions get involved in your movement and do you have a coordinated strategy?

Atig: First, we created a group on Facebook. Then, there were many reactions from people in other regions. People started to ask themselves, "What are we waiting for?"

People from student unions and other young people who were very active regionally also got involved.

It started here [in Tunis] with different groups, including student unions and groups of unemployed graduates. Everyone here helped spread this campaignand what happened in Tunis happened in all the other regions.

This is not only [a movement] for Tunis; it's for all of Tunisia.

Al Jazeera:The government has accused protesters of looting and engaging in acts of violence. How do you respond to people who have criticised your protests as violent?

Atig: First of all, our campaign has no relation to violence or breaking things.


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