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Tunisia's rulers fail to live up to Arab Spring promise

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People attend demonstrations on the seventh anniversary of the toppling of president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, in Tunis, Tunisia January 14, 2018
People attend demonstrations on the seventh anniversary of the toppling of president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, in Tunis, Tunisia January 14, 2018 REUTERS/Amine Ben Aziza

Nearly one thousand people have been arrested in Tunisia in the biggest wave of social unrest since the revolution. Anger at new austerity measures has brought hundreds of Tunisians back onto the streets with the same demands they did back in 2011. Seven years on, protesters say the government has failed to live up to the promises of the Arab Spring.


Every January since the 2011 revolution, Tunisians have taken to the streets to vent their anger over high unemployment and corruption. Seven years on, some of the same problems remain.

“People are very angry and very frustrated by the lack of hope and lack of perspective,” says Olfa Lamloum, the Country Manager in Tunisia for the British NGO International Alert.

Protests that are usually confined to Tunisia's socially deprived west and south regions, have this year spread to the capital Tunis.

"All our research shows that the situation of people, inhabitants of marginalised areas, especially the youth has deteriorated since the collapse of Ben Ali," Lamloum told RFI.

Youth unemployment stands at more than 35% according to the UN's International Labour Organisation, and the economy remains wracked by corruption and clientelist networks.

"These protests that we’re seeing in Tunisia right now, they didn’t come out of the blue," Monica Marks, a Tunisia expert at Oxford University told RFI.

"People are upset about many of the same things that upset them seven years ago. And each year that it continues and these demands aren’t met, the frustration keeps building."

IMF under scrutiny

Frustrations reached boiling point early January when the government unveiled this year's budget, aimed at raising taxes and prices of basic necessities, while at the same time scrapping subsidies.

The social cost though is too high warns Marks: "Austerity measures are hard enough for Western countries, imagine if you just came out of an authoritarian state, you’re trying to go into a democracy, and all of a sudden you get austerity measures, naturally it increases old-regime nostalgia, naturally it would make people feel less confident in democratic governance as a successful solution."

In December 2017, the International Monetary Fund urged Tunisia to take decisive measures to address its economic problems. The biggest of those problems is the public deficit.

Marks slams the IMF for placing too much emphasis on public sector cuts and not enough on tackling corruption.

"A lot of poor people in the country simply don't have anything left to give. Tackling corruption and clientelism would have a huge impact, because a lot of the protests we’ve seen have started because of unfair, corrupt hiring practices."

Public sector corruption

Two years ago in January as well, huge protests erupted in Kasserine in Tunisia's South, after a 27-year old car mechanic named Reda Yahyaoui was electrocuted, after climbing a transmission pole to foment further action by protesters.

Days beforehand, he'd been turned down from a job interview, due to corruption says Marks.

"The local phosphate company was not hiring people transparently. To get a job there, you would have to bribe someone 3 or 4,000 dinar (1.000 - 1.500 euros), and this is rampant in public sector jobs, they’re not given meritocratically, they’re given corruptly."

Olfa Lamloum travelled to Kasserine at the height of the unrest in 2016, and co-directed a documentary called "Voices from Kasserine".

"Voices from Kasserine is a 52 minute documentary. We travelled through the governate of Kasserine, which is a stronghold of the Revolution of January 2011, to hear the words of its inhabitants."

Kasserine's disillusioned youth

The documentary gives a voice to farmers, unemployed graduates, and even child smugglers, who benefit from Kasserine's close proximity to the Algerian border says Lamloum.

“I was really troubled by my interview with a kid smuggler. He avoided during all the interview looking at the camera," she said of one interviewee who proved difficult to interview.

"I felt like I was dragging his words out of him. It really shows the vulnerability of youth in Kasserine, where for some youth smuggling is the only opportunity to survive.”

Tunisia has been held up as the only successful democratic transition among the Arab uprisings but its struggling economy is unable to meet the aspirations of its young people, making them prey for groups like the Islamic State armed group.

Tunisia's President Beji Caid Essebsi has vowed to improve the lives of young Tunisians during a visit last week to a youth centre in a working-class suburb of Tunis. He handed out loans and promised to improve aid for the poor and provide healthcare.

Too little too late

Though welcome, Lamloum says the government response is only a pain-killer, "but doesn't deal with the underlying causes of poverty and inequality."

"It’s late and it’s insufficient and it’s not going to solve the problem. The help that most families are going to get from these reforms only amounts to 12 or 20 dollars a month. It’s very very little.”

The country's economic challenges have taken the shine off democracy, but both Lamloum and Marks acknowledge that the revolution did bring some gains.

"For sure we gained some new things, like the new democratic constitution, democratic elections, freedom of expression, the right to protest, despite the arrest of hundreds of protesters recently," said Lamloum.

"People are not satisfied, that doesn’t mean that the revolution has failed or that the protests are a rejection of the revolution," comments Marks.

Seven years ago, the battle cry of the revolution was: "Work, Freedom, and Dignity". Seven years on, protesters are again chanting the 2011 slogans.

"Tunisians got freedom," says Marks, "today's protests are a continuation of the revolution’s demands which have not been met."

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