By Ghassen Ben Khelifa and Hamza Hamouchene
Tue 23 Jan 2018
Riots in Tunisia echo the events of 2011, when unrest swept the Middle East
In addition to 800 arrests and dozens of injuries, one man has been killed in a violent police crackdown on protests that have erupted across Tunisia. This popular movement was unleashed by the government’s 2018 budget: a new round of austerity measures that will lead to higher prices for basic foods, fuel and energy, and a further undermining of crucial public services such as healthcare and education. All of this will be an additional burden on the backs of marginalised and impoverished people.
The government is not acting alone. These measures are being imposed by international financial institutions such as the IMF, which agreed a loan of $3bn to Tunisia in 2017 on precisely these conditions. This neoliberal agenda is being pushed by Tunisia’s imperial masters and backed by multinational corporations, development agencies and mainstream NGOs.
The 2011 revolution was a fight for dignity, bread, sovereignty and social justice, but this is a country crushed by the weight of accumulated debt. Repayments are expected to reach a record 22% of public expenditure this year.
It is no coincidence that the protests flared up on the seventh anniversary of the toppling of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. The Tunisian uprising, which heralded momentous changes in north Africa and beyond, is often presented as an exception in the region, which ultimately did not descend into the same sort of violence and chaos seen in neighbouring countries.
In one sense, though, Tunisia is not exceptional: the old order is clinging on. And what has been dubbed a peaceful “democratic transition” is in reality designed to crush the revolutionary spirit of the people and implement more of the disastrous economic policies that led them to rise up in the first place. This is what lies behind the current wave of repression and harassment.
The Tunisian people know that real democracy is not possible without social justice and popular sovereignty, and they feel those things slipping through their fingers. They see the state working to preserve the status quo, de-politicise society, maintain Tunisia’s subordination to foreign interests, and put the brakes on the radical demands of 2011. They also see counter-revolutionary elites that are subservient to foreign masters and wedded, more than ever, to a faith in free markets that have failed time and time again.
This month’s protests were initiated by the youth movement Fesh Nestannew (which means “What are we waiting for?”) and joined by young people from marginalised, working class areas on the fringes of major cities, which have witnessed the most violent repression.
These protests show that Tunisians have not given up. Though weakened, the revolutionary fervour is being kept alive
At a fundamental level, these protests express people’s accumulated anger and resentment at the betrayal of their revolution. For the past seven years, young people across the country have organised sit-ins, and occupations; they have shut down production at oil wells, phosphate mines and gas fields, demanding jobs and better living conditions.
These protests show that Tunisians have not given up. Though weakened, the revolutionary fervour is being kept alive by new revolutionary organisations, self-organised communities, youth collectives, women’s rights associations, trade unions, unemployed graduates, peasants and marginalised communities, away from bustling tourist attractions.
Tunisia is still a cauldron of resistance to neoliberalism and neo-colonial attacks on its sovereignty. Despite the state crackdown, Fesh Nestannew and others are determined to keep fighting until the budget is defeated. The streets are simmering once again, and yearning for radical change.
• Ghassen Ben Khelifa, a Tunisian journalist and activist, founded the media outlet Inhiyez. Hamza Hamouchene, an Algerian activist, is War on Want’s senior programmes officer for north Africa and west Asia.