Seven years into a relatively peaceful political transition that has given Tunisia a reputation for stability, protests have again spread across the country. The successful adoption of an inclusive constitution, the enactment of laws prohibiting violence against women and girls, and the holding of free and fair elections have in themselves not been enough to address underlying structural problems that have persisted since the 2011 transition. While the political and social reality that demonstrators are responding to does require serious attention, there are also reasons to hope that the current juncture is an opportunity to build on Tunisia’s successes.
The protests began at the beginning of January in Tunis and rapidly spread throughout the country. Thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets, leading to a heavy-handed response from the authorities. Some 900 people, including many minors, have been arrested since the protests began. While demonstrations have been generally peaceful, some have turned violent—particularly those at night—leading to clashes with the police and injuries among their ranks. Numerous people have been injured and one person has died.
The immediate trigger of the protests was the new 2018 Finance Act that has raised taxes and the price of basic goods and services, in a move designed to reduce the government deficit and satisfy international lenders. The government has said the measures are necessary to reverse a deteriorating economic situation. The political opposition, who have organized the protests alongside civil society actors, argue that the austerity budget instituted by the act will overwhelmingly hurt the already struggling poor and middle classes.
In a bid to ease tensions, President Beji Caid Essebsi announced measures to reduce the impact of the tax hikes, including improved assistance and healthcare provisions for the most needy to help offset the price increases. These measures, however helpful, are unlikely to quell the anger of the people. While economics was the spark of the protests, the source of the discontent is much deeper and stems from the core grievances that prompted the 2010-2011 uprising.
When demonstrations erupted in Tunisia seven years ago, citizens were not simply calling for the removal of Ben Ali, but also for an end to corruption, what they perceived as disregard for the people by the governing elites, and for greater job opportunities. After the uprising, free and fair elections and the laying of the foundations for a democracy gave people hope that their concerns would be heard and that their lives would improve.
What has transpired since that time has in some important ways not met expectations nor has it translated into improved socio-economic conditions for many Tunisians. Since 2011, unemployment has come down slowly across the general population, but remains stubbornly high among youth at about 35 percent. The situation in Tunisia’s interior and south—regions from which many of the country’s foreign jihadi fighters hail—is particularly dire due to decades of neglect. According to a recent poll, 68 per cent of Tunisians view their situation as “very bad.” Against this backdrop, a general dissatisfaction with the result of the democratic transition has been steadily mounting.
There is, nevertheless, cause for hope. Though there is much visible anger and frustration, a critical mass of people is also engaged in building on the successes of the past seven years, especially women. One key factor is the strength of civil society. Civil society actors that have helped to organize the current wave of protests appear aware of the need to keep pressure on the government to develop a more comprehensive strategy for inclusive growth. These actors also have the support of opposition political parties, such as the leftist Popular Front and the centrist Republican Party. The powerful UGTT trade union has yet to take an official position, yet some of its branches have already participated in the demonstrations, adding to the weight of the people’s cause.
On the side of the government there is also reason for optimism. Although the government did initially revert to repressive tactics and sought to portray the demonstrators as rioters, there are reasons to believe that a drift towards authoritarian is not inevitable. Tunisian politicians have proved capable of putting the transition above parochial interests and infighting whenever the country has seemed close to the precipice. In 2013, when Tunisia was thrust into a political crisis, governing political elites were able to act in the interest of the country and allow a technocratic government to take the helm and restore confidence in the transition. This same spirit could avert a deterioration of the situation in the current circumstances.
Establishing a technocratic government, as some are calling for, will not in itself be enough to address the problems at the root of the current unrest. A robust set of policies are needed that can generate jobs in the formal economy and increase the development of Tunisia’s neglected regions. A critical step in implementing the provisions of the new constitution is establishing the constitutional court. Progress also needs to be made towards greater decentralization following the municipal elections in March. If carried out effectively, decentralization could help ensure that the voice of the people is heard and met at the local level. Communication and collaboration between political parties and leaders at the national level and civil society and younger populations across the country will also improve public perception that the government is interested in listening to and addressing the needs of the people.
The current protests could well be the needed wake-up call for the government—as well as Tunisia’s international partners—to realize that the grievances from years ago linger and must be addressed. Taking advantage of the opportunity in the aftermath of these protests will boost confidence in the transition and avert further instability. As the last few years have demonstrated, free and fair elections are not enough; they need to work for the people. A key determinant of Tunisia’s fate will be the extent to which the government can develop strategies to increase both socio-economic and political inclusion in the country for everyone.
Lisa Watanabe is Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich.