Why are Tunisians protesting?

Why are Tunisians protesting?
From Al Jazeera - January 14, 2018

Today marks the seventh anniversary of the fall of Tunisia's dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But instead of celebrating, Tunisians are out in the streets again. What went wrong?

The dictatorship established in the 1950s, which morphed into a police state in the later decades, banned politics and pushed citizens away from their country's public affairs. The Tunisian revolution swept away that closure and created the Tunisian homo-politicus. Since January 2011, Tunisians have become incredibly politicised and the political system has been opened to all. Yet what the Revolution did not do was create a Tunisian homo-economicus. The Tunisian economy remained mismanaged.

Anger boiled over when the political opening reached its limits and that mismanagement was no longer tolerable.

Socioeconomic anger

In fact, the economic situation has worsened since 2011. The country's public debt jumped from 39.2 percent of the GDP in 2010 to 60.6 percent in 2016. The Tunisian dinar, the local currency, lost around 40 percent of its value to the US dollar. Unemployment persisted, especially among youth (around 35 percent now).

The prices of basic goods have been continually rising. Tunisians of all walks of life complain that their living conditions are deteriorating and that they are unable to make ends meet each month.

This is the main trigger of today's protests. And in a way, it was also the trigger of most of the demonstrations the country has witnessed for the past seven years. What sparked this wave of protests is the finance law which came into effect on January 1. The parliament passed the law last year and although it was discussed in the media, it did not catch the public's eye. It was only when prices went up that people paid attention.

A group of mostly young activists launched a protest campaign against the law called "Fech Nestanaou" (What are we waiting for?). They were a few dozens whose means were limited to tags on walls and distributing tracts. The police, unreformed and still working with the Ben Ali-era methods, harassed, brutalised and arrested (briefly) many of them. A smear campaign against the movement followed.

But because of the latent anger, many people went out demonstrating, independently from "Fech Nestanaou". Leftist political groups, some of them with anarchist tendencies, joined the movement as well. Protests spread in the streets of Tunis, Sfax, Jebeniana, Sousse, and other cities across the country. Criminal elements managed to take advantage of the situation and there were incidents of looting in some areas.

A political elite without a people

This latest crisis comes amid a larger one which has gripped the country since the fall of Ben Ali's regime.

The elections of 2014 elevated two winners: centrist party Nidaa Tounes and the Islamist Ennahdha. Nidaa Tounes, whose political campaign was built on countering Ennahdha, accepted to form an alliance with the latter.

This led to a general disappointment among the party grassroots and a wave of resignations ensued. Then, when the party leader Beji Caid Essebsi left the party to become president of Tunisia, a succession crisis erupted and the party felt apart.

The alliance was, therefore, from the beginning, a weak one and based on mistrust. The "consensus", which was mainly the result of agreements between Caid Essebsi and Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi, could not go deep into the constituencies of the two parties. It remained purely nominal. Ministers and members of parliament were disconnected from their bases and many laws and measures they passed reflected their self-interest and had limited reach.

Empty political promises


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