Friday,17 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)
Friday,17 August, 2018
Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Unemployment fuels unrest in Tunisia

Al-Ahram Weekly

Tunisia is being swept by a wave of demonstrations reminiscent of the country’s experience five years ago, when protests triggered the first of the Arab Spring revolutions.

But the fifth anniversary of the Tunisian revolution is being commemorated against the backdrop of declining living standards and high unemployment rates. The government’s failure so far to remedy these problems, despite its many promises, has driven thousands of young Tunisians onto the streets of the country’s towns and cities.

Violent protests last week spread to 12 regions, where there were clashes with riot police and a number of security buildings were set on fire. Last Wednesday, a policeman died in clashes with protestors, according to a statement from the Tunisian Interior Ministry.

On 22 January, a state of emergency was declared throughout the country, along with a nighttime curfew and the sealing of the borders with neighbouring Libya.

This year’s protests did not originate in the town of Sidi Bouzid, as was the case in 2011 when Mohamed Bouazizi, a young vegetable-seller, immolated himself after police seized his cart and abused him.

This time the spark came from the central-western town of Kasserine, where two weeks ago Ridha Yahyaoui, a 28-year-old university graduate, climbed an electricity pylon to protest against his rejection from a public-sector job and was electrocuted.

The young man’s death triggered rapidly escalating protests in Kasserine, with demonstrators rallying in front of governorate offices, blocking the main roads, and many of them threatening to commit suicide if the government failed to respond to their demands.

The unemployment protests quickly built up momentum, spread to other parts of the country and soon reached the capital. As the demonstrations increased in scope and size, confrontations with the security forces grew fiercer and demonstrators stormed government buildings in Tunis and Kasserine.

In the first official response to the protests, Speaker of Parliament Mohamed Nacer formed a delegation of seven MPs to visit Kasserine, assess the situation of youth unemployment in the region, and submit a report to parliament on the eruption of tensions there.

Prime Minister Habib Essid called for an emergency session of parliament to discuss what could be done to create jobs for unemployed young people.

In his first comments on the events in Kasserine, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi tried to play down the protests. “The demonstrations that are taking place in a number of regions in the country are legitimate and proof that Tunisia respects the constitution,” he said, adding that he could “understand” the movement, but cautioned against blowing it out of proportion.

Speaking at a joint press conference with visiting Austrian President Heinz Fischer at the Carthage Presidential Palace a week ago, Essebsi said that his government had inherited a “difficult situation”, with rising unemployment rates.

An estimated 700,000 people are out of work in Tunisia, among whom are 250,000 university degree holders, aggravating difficulties in areas already gripped by poverty and marginalisation, the official Tunisian news agency said.

In his press conference, Essebsi stressed that freedom of expression and the right to organise protests were guaranteed under the country’s constitution and the presidency was committed to protecting these liberties.

Soon afterwards, a group of protesters stormed the governorate building in Tunis after having taken part in a protest march organised by the Tunisian Students Union and the Federation of Unemployed Higher Degree Holders from Mohamed Ali Square to the Ministry of Interior building.

Wael Nawar, the secretary-general of the Tunisian Students Union, was quoted on the Haqaiq Online news website as saying that the storming of the governorate building was a “symbolic act” intended to demonstrate the protestors’ ability to occupy government buildings, as they had done during the revolution.

He stressed that the storming had been “peaceful” and that there had been no damage or vandalism of any sort. The demonstrators had headed directly to the office of the governor to inform him that they could occupy government buildings if necessary, he said.

According to Nawar, some 1,500 members of the Tunisian Students Union and the Federation of Unemployed Higher Degree Holders and other young people had taken part in the march to express their solidarity with the protestors in Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine and to defend their demands for development and employment opportunities.

The protests led Essid to cut short his visit to Europe and return to Tunisia to deal with the crisis. He urged calm and national unity to safeguard the country’s nascent democracy, which he said was a model for the rest of the region. He stressed that his government fully understood the demands and was working hard to come up with solutions.

As an urgent measure to counter the rising wave of protests, the government moved to add 5,000 unemployed to the public-sector placement agencies with instructions to give priority to higher degree holders. It also decreed that it will immediately hire 1,400 people in temporary government sector appointments.

In addition, the Ministry of Labour pledged to earmark ten million dinars to fund 500 projects targeting young people. Such measures have not satisfied the protestors, who have described them as “patchwork solutions.”

Tunisian Minister of Trade Mohsen Hassan defended measures that he said extended across all governorates. The country’s National Vocational Training and Employment Programme will be able to absorb 189,473 unemployed, he said, 100,000 more than its initial capacity of 80,000.

His ministry will set in motion 13,000 small enterprises with the help of 156 million dinars in funding from the Tunisian Solidarity Bank and another 30 million dinars from companies specialising in funding small enterprises, he said. These projects will help alleviate unemployment among university graduates and other segments of the unemployed, he added.

As the wave of protests spread, the authorities grew increasingly anxious at the possibility that jihadist elements from Mount Chaambi in Libya might take advantage of the chaos to infiltrate the country and exploit the discontent among young people.

Government officials have repeatedly stressed that “Tunisia is in a state of war against terrorism” and that efforts must be focussed on eradicating it. They have also complained that the recent outbreaks of violence have “distracted the focus of the security agencies.”

Yet, valid as these concerns are, such statements are not expected to inspire confidence among the demonstrators of the seriousness of the government’s intentions to remedy the unemployment crisis.

Tunisia’s government, led by the Nidaa Tounes Party, also fears that the protests could be exploited by political rivals, especially as they come at time when the party has suffered a major rift in its ranks. Previous governments have also failed to stimulate development and address the problem of unemployment, but such arguments often carry little weight.

The French government has stepped in with an offer to help Tunisia through a plan that will contribute up to a billion euros over the next five years. In a press conference after a meeting with Essid, French President Francois Hollande said that the plan will help impoverished areas and young people in Tunisia by focussing on job creation.

So far, political rivals have not tried to take advantage of the recent surge in protests, with the exception of former president Moncef Marzouki, who has ratcheted up his attacks on Essebsi and called for early elections.

In contrast, Rached Al-Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist-oriented Ennahda Party, which has become the largest parliamentary bloc since the rift in the Nidaa Tounes Party, has expressed his support for Essebsi, saying that the president has been “speaking objectively” about the situation in Tunisia.

In an interview on the Tunisian Hannibal TV channel on Friday, Al-Ghannouchi said that Tunisia will “emerge victorious in the battle for development just as it has emerged victorious in the battle for democracy.”

“The problems of Tunisia are not the product of today, but rather are the legacy of the period before the revolution. Our people, who made the revolution and the constitution, are capable of producing development and creating work opportunities,” Al-Ghannouchi said.

He accused “gangs” of trying to exploit the pain of young people in order to burn and plunder, whereas this is a time when the country needed national solidarity. He said that “bloating the ranks of the civil service” is not a solution to the country’s unemployment problem.

What is needed are efforts to facilitate investment in the poorer regions, as well as a national dialogue on job creation that includes all segments of the population, the political parties and representatives of civil society. He also called on the people to support the security and military agencies.

As the situation stands, the protests against unemployment and standards of living do not seem to be developing into a broader anti-government movement. Taxi drivers in Tunis decided to postpone the strike they had scheduled for this week, for example, according to a statement issued by the Regional Federation for Industry, Trade and Traditional Crafts, following a meeting with officials from the Department of Ground Transport.

It also appears that the steps to combat unemployment announced by Minister of Trade Mohcen Hassan have helped to alleviate the tensions.

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