Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1377, ( 18 - 24 January 2018)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1377, ( 18 - 24 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

More protests in Tunisia

All eyes have been drawn to the current protests against poor living conditions in Tunisia, often seen as a model for change in the region, reports Kamel Abdallah


Tensions mark the seventh anniversary of the Jasmine Revolution (photo: AFP)
Tensions mark the seventh anniversary of the Jasmine Revolution (photo: AFP)

اقرأ باللغة العربية

Nationwide protests are sweeping the streets of Tunisia’s towns and cities, with demonstrators demanding better living conditions. The demonstrations coincide with the seventh anniversary of the 2011 Jasmine Revolution that led to the ouster of former president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali, triggering what later became known as the Arab Spring.

Today’s protests follow on the heels of economic reform plans that aim at restoring Tunisia’s ailing economy. Demonstrations have taken place in 12 cities across the country, protesting against unemployment, rising taxes and increasing prices. They began on 2 January after the government of Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Al-Shahed announced increases in the prices of fuel and commodities in line with the country’s 2018 budget.

Violent clashes with police have led to the death of one protester and the injury of eight members of the police. Some 850 demonstrators have been arrested. The bombing of a Jewish school, in which no one was injured, led Tunisian President Beji Ceid Essebsi to order the deployment of the army in troubled areas.

In an attempt to quell the public anger, the government announced a package of measures earlier this week to provide poorer families with better housing and health insurance.

At a press conference on 13 January, Minister of Social Affairs Mohamed Al-Tarabolsi said the government was working on a social protection package that would benefit more than 120,000 people and cost over 70 million dinars, or 23.5 million euros, according to the French news agency AFP.

Essebsi also met with leading Tunisian political parties, among them Nedaa Tounes (Call for Tunisia) and Ennahda (Renaissance Movement), to discuss ways of ending the disturbances caused by the government’s economic measures.

“The social and political climate in Tunisia is not good,” Essebsi said, but the government was confident it could “overcome the problems.” He accused the foreign media and opposition forces within the country of “amplifying” the social unrest and damaging the image of Tunisia.

The situation in Tunisia this week brings to mind the 2011 uprising and the later demonstrations in 2012-13 that were the result of the country’s sharp political polarisation. The later protests ended in a fragile political settlement that culminated in the 2014 win of Ennahda and Essebsi’s Nedaa Tounes Party in the presidential and legislative elections.

However, political divisions soon affected Nedaa Tounes, giving control of parliament to Ennahda, which has maintained its links with the president.

Political and security conditions in Tunisia are threatened by the current violence, and they also have wider implications as the country is considered to be a model for change in the Middle East and North Africa region.

The Tunisian political leadership’s success in preventing the country from hitting rock bottom in 2012-13 has been a source of inspiration for other Arab countries.

The political settlement, orchestrated by a quartet of Tunisian civil society groups and the country’s General Labour Union, managed to restore stability and pushed for an alliance between the secular Nedaa Tounes Party and the Islamist Ennahda Movement led by Rachid Al-Ghanouchi.

Despite the fact that the quartet later won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 for promoting democracy in Tunisia, the political process then reached a stalemate, halting the parliament’s legislative activities because of constant disagreements between the two leading parties and resulting in the indefinite postponement of municipal elections.

The current demonstrations should come as no surprise. During the past three years, Tunisia has witnessed unrest in the centre and south of the country fuelled by worsening living conditions due to reform measures aimed at reviving the economy. These measures have failed to convince many Tunisians of their efficacy in spite of similar steps taken by some other Arab countries.

With official figures putting unemployment in Tunisia at 15 per cent, with many of those unemployed holding university degrees, the protests are further threatening Tunisia’s stability. Over the past few years, the country has witnessed an attack on the US embassy, political assassinations and two terrorist operations that claimed numerous lives, in addition to violence in the city of Ibn Kirdan on the Libyan border in which the culprits were associated with extremist groups.

The country’s poor economic conditions are being blamed for pushing Tunisian young people in the direction of extremist currents. Some reports have pointed out that many Islamic State (IS) group militants were of Tunisian origin.

Events in Tunisia also cannot be seen separately from what is taking place in the country’s neighbours. Libya to the east has been suffering from chaos and the absence of a strong government since the eruption of the civil war in 2011, while an uncertain political future awaits Algeria, Tunisia’s neighbour to the south and west.

It remains to be seen whether the protests in Tunisia are a stumbling block or a turning point in the future of the country.

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