Tunisia in Crisis: Protest and Transition

Popular Protest and Class Struggle in Africa – Part 12  

By David Seddon

In the last issue – the latest of a series on popular protest in those African states where long standing presidents have attempted to consolidate their grip on politics by extending their legitimate period in office, often by changing the Constitution – I considered the case of Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe was eventually forced at the end of 2017 to step down as president and give way to  ZANU-PF’s Emmerson Mnangagwa.

In this issue I examine the background to the events that took place at the beginning of this year in Tunisia, when what appeared at first sight to be old fashioned ‘bread riots’ revealed the deep crisis of the Tunisian political economy and consider the significance of the local elections in May.

Tunisia: a brief historical review

Tunisia achieved independence from France in 1956 with Habib Bourguiba as Prime Minister. A year later, Tunisia was declared a republic, and Bourguiba became its first President.

Tunisia under Bourghiba experienced two decades of relative stability and economic progress, but the global economic crisis of the 1970s and 1980s had its effect. In late 1977, growing dissatisfaction with economic conditions led to a wave of strikes which effectively brought whole sectors of the national economy to a standstill. The army was called in to deal with the strikers and, in response, the General Union of Tunisian Workers (the UGTT) called a national strike, which was observed throughout the country in January 1978.

Hardliners in the government voted for the repression of the strike movement with a view to destroying the power of the trade union movement, which remained strong and when disturbances broke out in Tunis during the general strike, the army was given carte blanche to intervene. Estimates of the number killed varied between 50 and 200. Some 800 people were arrested immediately, and thousands of trade unionists were sentenced subsequently by summary courts.  

Short term repression and a degree of medium term political liberalization – opposition parties were legalized in 1981 – resulted in a period of relative calm. But the economic difficulties that generated the popular protests had not been resolved. Structural adjustment and ‘economic reforms’ were implemented by the regime in Tunisia, just as they were across the developing world during the late 1970s and early 1980s, and they tended to be associated, again in Tunisia as elsewhere, with ‘austerity’ and cuts in subsidies.

Free markets and ‘bread riots’

In Tunisia, social unrest following price increases began in January 1984 in the Nefzaoua, a semi-arid region in the south west and historically the poorest region in the country, and then spread to other parts of the South. After the outbreak of mass protest in January 1984, a local observer in Kebili – one of the small southern towns where violent demonstrations had taken place – remarked that ‘it was not for bread that the young demonstrated, but because they were the victims of unemployment’.

The southern interior had a relatively high unemployment rate, and many had left the region for the more prosperous coastal areas in the north; some 60,000 had left Tunisia altogether to seek work in Libya. The region also suffered from the drought of 1983-84 which substantially reduced the local harvest. But many of those in power refused to accept that economic and social problems experienced by the mass of the Tunisian people – particularly the poor in the rural areas and small towns – underlay the social unrest.

The governor of Kebili in the West blamed ‘foreign-inspired agitators’, while in Gafsa, the ‘capital’ of the South, the governor identified ‘Libyan- or Lebanese-trained Tunisians’ as the leaders of the protests. This was justified by the fact that the south had been, for some time, an area where Libyan influence was felt to be considerable and where the main political opposition to the regime had been openly expressed in the recent past.

Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime and ‘neo-liberalism’

After the ‘bread riots’ of 1984, there was a short period during which the Tunisian government backed off somewhat from its ‘austerity’ programme and a degree of political glasnost (opening up) was allowed. But the economy was still in crisis, with 10 per cent inflation, an external debt accounting for 46 per cent of GDP and a debt service ratio of 21 per cent of GDP; and the regime itself was badly shaken. When, on 7 November 1987, after 30 years in power, doctors declared Bourguiba unfit to rule, his former security chief, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, assumed the presidency, in accordance with Article 57 of the Tunisian constitution.

Ben Ali initially promised a more democratic regime than that of Bourguiba. Indeed, one of his first acts upon taking office was to loosen restrictions on the press. For the first time state-controlled newspapers published statements from the opposition. In 1988, he changed the name of the ruling Destourian Socialist Party to the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), and pushed through constitutional amendments that ‘limited’ the presidency to three five-year terms, with no more than two in a row. However, the conduct of the 1989 elections proved little different from past elections. The RCD swept every seat in the legislature, and Ben Ali appeared alone on the ballot in what was Tunisia’s first presidential election since 1974.

In the meanwhile, however, the ruling elite – including the president and his family – began to develop a reputation inside the country for corruption and criminality. In 1992 the president’s older brother Habib Ben Ali was tried in absentia in France for laundering the proceeds of drug trafficking, in a case known as the ‘couscous connection’. French television news was blocked in Tunisia during the trial. The First Lady, Leila Ben Ali, was widely described as an ‘unabashed shopaholic’ who used the state airplane to make frequent unofficial trips to Europe’s fashion capitals and Tunisia refused a French request for the extradition of two of the President’s nephews, from Leila’s side, who were accused by the French State prosecutor of having stolen two mega-yachts from a French marina.

The next two decades saw the return of several Bourguiba-era restrictions. For many years, the press was allowed a degree of freedom, but it was always expected to practice self-censorship. This, however, increasingly gave way to official censorship. Amendments to the press code allowed the Interior Ministry to review all newspaper and magazine articles before publication. The dominance of the RCD was maintained by a combination of propaganda and repression, and Ben Ali was consistently re-elected as president with enormous majorities (well over 80 per cent of the vote) periodically through the 1990s and 2000s, the last time being on 25 October 2009.

The Ben Ali regime had initially presented itself as politically ‘liberal’. Independent human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, Freedom House and Protection International, persistently reported human rights abuses and serious restrictions on basic freedoms but these were largely ignored by ‘the international community’. A popular tourist destination for Europeans in particular, Tunisia was represented as – and was widely considered to be – one of the few democracies in the Arab world, despite the overwhelming dominance of the ruling party, the long duration of presidential rule by Bourghiba and Ben Ali, and the repressive nature of the state apparatus. It was also heralded as being relatively ‘secular’ in a region that was becoming increasingly marked by the rise of political Islam.

Economic reform and apparent success                                             

The Tunisian economy had experienced a decline in the last years of Bourghiba, with a significant slow-down in growth and productivity between 1981 and 1987. But the change of regime helped business confidence at home and abroad, and a systematic programme of economic reform through the 1990s accelerated privatization, encouraged foreign investment and deepened integration into the European market. Tunisia signed up to the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) in 1994 and, in 1995, became a member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and signed the European Union Association Agreement. A special programme was launched in 1996 to upgrade the industrial and manufacturing sector, and there was investment in transport and communications infrastructure. Efforts were made to expand the service sector in general and the tourist sector in particular. 

Under Ben Ali, for a time, the Tunisian economy thrived. It was neither an economic miracle nor a full success story, but it did better than its neighbours. It achieved an average economic growth rate of nearly 5 per cent over the 1990s and 2000s, out-performing most other Middle Eastern and North African and lower middle-income countries. The service sector grew at over 7 per cent a year, while the export of goods and services expanded at an average rate of 8.6 per cent a year. It kept its domestic and external economic imbalances under control.

Thanks to its successful family planning policy – made possible by the prevalence of relatively ‘secular’ social attitudes – the population growth rate declined significantly, to around 1 per cent a year. As a consequence, Tunisia boasted a per capita growth in GDP of more than 3 percent a year during the 2000s. Its per capita income, which stood at $2,227 in 1990, had risen to $2,713 by 2005, and reached $3,720 by the end of 2010.

By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the Tunisian economy as a whole was relatively diversified, with strong foreign direct investment, the growth and development of new (mechanical and electrical) industrial activities, and an increasingly important role for the service sector, whose share increased from 55 per cent in the early 1990s to more than 62 per cent currently. The country also diversified its exports, with a relatively high proportion of manufactures (including mechanical and electrical goods as well as textiles).

The growth of inequality

The overall success of the economy, however, effectively masked growing inequality, both regional and social. Agriculture, which had stagnated and declined overall in terms of its contribution to national GDP, remained an important source of livelihoods in the Tunisian interior as a whole. The dynamic sectors of the economy were highly concentrated in the coastal areas of the north and the east, and in the larger cities and – as Habib Ayeb has remarked recently in his discussion of ‘food sovereignty’ posted in the roape.net interviews section – positive links between these ‘developed’ and ‘less developed’ regions/sectors have been historically limited.

President Ben Ali steered most of Tunisia’s riches to the northern coast. It received 82 per cent of development funds in his final budget. Today, the south and the west lag on almost every socio-economic indicator. Regional inequality, always a feature of Tunisian economy and society, had grown significantly (but unremarked) during the ‘boom’ years of the 1990s and 2000s. Even those areas that experienced significant ‘development’ were marked by inequality and unemployment as the ‘development’ that took place failed to benefit the majority in those regions and tended instead to ‘trickle up’ to the wealthy and privileged (as Ayeb has remarked in his recent interview). On 5 May this year, the Economist remarked that ‘though the interior contains much of Tunisia’s farmland, its mineral resources and some of its best tourist attractions, it reaps few benefits. Tataouine, in the south is the hub of Tunisia’s oil industry. But profits are whisked up north. The governorate has the country’s highest unemployment rate’.

Unemployment has grown, particularly in the interior (in the mid-west, the south-west and the south-east), and the disaffection and hopelessness of the Tunisian youth has been expressed for many years in high levels of migration to work in Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world. Rates of unemployment among those aged 25 to 29 rose from 13 per cent in 1984 (at the time of the ‘bread riots’ discussed above) to 25 per cent in 2008. Like many other African countries, Tunisia experienced the effects of the global rise in food prices in 2007 and 2008. The country also suffered, as did so many other developing countries, from the crash of 2008 and subsequent recession.

Major political disturbances of the kind experienced in many other African countries were largely prevented by the high level of subsidies provided by the government, although mine-workers in the south rioted, and there were strikes in the manufacturing sector and factory occupations. But it was not to be very long before the growth of regional and social inequality, and of unemployment, resulted in an outburst of popular protest in Tunisia, as elsewhere across the Arab World, in the ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011.    

The rise of political Islam in Tunisia

The underlying inequalities of Tunisian economy and society, and unemployment, and the impact of these on young men in particular, combined with the increasingly repressive policies of the Ben Ali regime, led over the years to considerable disaffection and to greater involvement with those Islamist groups that developed in opposition to his government’s neo-liberal policies and to the traditional secularism of Tunisian society. Under Ben Ali, the Tunisian government arrested and detained thousands of political Islamists in the 1990s. Not all opposition groups espoused violence or takfirism, yet the regime made little distinction between those representing legitimate political opposition and those with more radical agendas.

In 2000, Tunisian nationals Tarek Maaroufi and Seifallah Ben Hassine, also known as Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi, founded the Tunisian Combatant Group. The group became an important vehicle for Tunisians’ participation in global jihadi-salafi networks, recruiting fighters to train and fight with al Qaeda in Afghanistan, providing logistical support to Algerian jihadis linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and plotting attacks from a constellation of Europe-based cells. Ben Hassine had spent time in Afghanistan and Chechnya before he was arrested by Turkey and extradited to Tunisia in 2003.

In some cases, such radical Islamists were encouraged by the Tunisian government to leave the country, to fight their jihadi cause abroad, in Afghanistan, Iraq or, later in Syria, in the hope that they might die on the battlefield and not return. At the same time, the government suppressed most overt religious expression and debate not sanctioned by the state, creating a religious vacuum that salafists and jihadi-salafists would later seek to fill. In 2002, Tunisian courts convicted 34 Tunisians of recruiting other Tunisians residing in Europe to join armed groups in Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Chechnya; and a new generation of young men was incarcerated under a sweeping counter-terrorism law passed in 2003.

Hundreds of young Tunisians did leave their country to fight as jihadis abroad, though in fewer numbers than their counterpart in other North African countries. Around 400 Tunisians were among the ranks of the ‘Afghan Arabs’ fighting against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, compared to an estimated 2,800 Algerians and 2,000 Egyptians. In the period after 2001, more Tunisians went to fight in Afghanistan, and, after 2003, in Iraq but according to 2006 estimates, Tunisians and Moroccans together constituted only around five percent of foreign fighters in Iraq, while Algerians represented almost 20 per cent.

The legacy of Tunisian fighters was significant, however, despite their relatively small numbers. Veteran jihadis built networks of recruiters, facilitators, and financiers within Tunisia as well as internationally that provided an infrastructure for the wider mobilization of Tunisian fighters after 2011.

The ‘Arab Spring’

It was in Tunisia that the incident occurred which many argue marks the beginning of the ‘Arab Spring’ – the wave of popular unrest that swept across the Arab world in the early months of 2011. A desperate street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set fire to himself in Sidi Bouzid, a town in Tunisia’s Centre-West.   In his recent interview in roape.net, Habib Ayeb argues that what he calls ‘the constructed history’ of Bouazizi ‘has dispossessed the peasants of Sidi Bouzid and the rest of the country of their stories of struggles and resistance, stories with which the real history of Bouzazizi fits perfectly’. Ayeb comments that he has himself written on the relationship between the peasants of Sidi Bouzid, Bouazizi and the ‘revolution’ (see Ayeb’s ROAPE Briefing here).  

He explains in the interview that Sidi Bouzid was the region of Tunisia that received the most investment between 1990 and 2011. ‘It is a region that had an extensive semi-pastoral farming system, and it became in less than 30 years the premier agricultural region of the country. Regueb, which is part of Sidi Bouzid, looks like California. Regueb is a perfect technical success, an exemplar of the Californian model. The problem is that the local population does not benefit. It is the people from Sfax and the Sahel who get rich in Sidi Bouzid, not the people of Sidi Bouzid. Hence the link with the story of Mohamed Bouazizi’.

Mohamed Bouazizi was a Tunisian street vendor of fruit and vegetables in Sidi Bouzid who set himself on fire on 17 December 2010 in response to the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation inflicted on him by a municipal official and her aides. Bouazizi died at the Ben Arous Burn and Trauma Centre 18 days after he set himself on fire, on 4 January 2011. Simmering public anger intensified into mass protests following Bouazizi’s death, leading Ben Ali to step down as president on 14 January 2011, after 23 years in power.

Popular protests broke out in Sidi Bouzid within hours, and gradually became more sizeable over the next two weeks, with attempts by police to quiet the unrest serving only to fuel what was evidently becoming a significant movement. There were reports in mid-December 2010 of police obstructing demonstrators and using tear gas on hundreds of young protesters who had gathered outside regional government headquarters to demonstrate against the treatment of Mohamed Bouazizi. It is estimated that more than 5,000 people participated in the funeral procession that began in Sidi Bouzid and continued through to Bouazizi’s native village.

Coverage of events was limited by Tunisian media.  After Bouazizi’s death, however, the protests became widespread, moving into the more affluent areas of the country and eventually reaching the capital. The protests constituted the most dramatic wave of social and political unrest in Tunisia in three decades, and resulted in scores of deaths and injuries, most of which were the result of action by police and security forces against demonstrators.

The protestors came from a wide range of different backgrounds but reflected for the most part the social groups that had been most adversely affected by unemployment and poor living conditions (ie the working classes and the rural poor). The demands of ‘the street’ referred to ‘freedom and dignity’ as well as to ‘bread and jobs’. Indeed, although in the West the uprising came to be referred to as ‘the Jasmine Revolution’, locally it was referred to as ‘the Dignity Revolution’ (Thawrat al-Karāmah).

The labour unions were heavily involved. So too were the various Islamist groups whose strength inside Tunisia had gradually increased over the years in opposition to the Ben Ali regime and whose links with other groups in neighbouring countries and across the Arab world had also developed with the general rise in political Islam. Notable among these was Ennahda, an Islamist party widely referred to as ‘moderate’, although sections of the party saw ‘moderation’ as ‘selling out’ on their core principles (see Anne Wolf’s history of the party here).  

The protests became so intense that President Ben Ali fled Tunisia with his family on 14 January 2011. They first tried to find refuge in France, but this was denied them by the French government,  eventually they were given refuge by Saudi Arabia with ‘a long list of conditions’ (such as being barred from participation in the media and politics), sparking ‘angry condemnation’ among many Saudis. Back in Tunisia, unrest persisted even as a new regime took over, following elections in October 2011 which resulted in a landslide for Ennahda.

Tunisia after the ‘revolution’

The process of political change in Tunisia since the Arab Spring and the so-called ‘revolution’ of 2011 has been complex and uneven, with the interim government led by the apparently ‘moderate’ Islamist Ennahdha initially – during 2011-2013 – trying to maintain a balance between the radical Islamists on the one hand and the old RCD loyalists on the other, and to ensure effective security for Tunisian citizens. Progress as regards both the development of democratic politics in general and the reform of the security sector in particular has been slow. However, some specific progressive reforms were achieved. These included the ratification of a procedural guide on human rights for internal security forces, the revision of laws governing arrest and detention, the legalization of unions for security personnel and the ending of the electoral role of the Ministry of Interior. The interim government also ratified several international protocols prohibiting torture and forced disappearance and affirming universal civil and political rights. A torture commission law was passed in October 2013 that subjected detention facilities to surprise inspections by human rights monitors; and the state of emergency, which had been declared in the wake of Ben Ali’s overthrow in January 2011, was finally lifted in March 2014.

One of the most controversial reforms was the formalisation of the ‘citizens’ committees’ that had provided basic security for local communities in the wake of the uprising. In November 2011, Ennahdha had formed these into an unarmed body, the National League for the Protection of the Revolution, which was granted legal status in June 2012. Ostensibly intended to root out ancien régime loyalists and prevent members of the former ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (the RCD), from re-entering political life, the League was seen by Ennahdha’s critics as an instrument to ‘Islamize’ law and order, a replica of ikhwanization in Egypt.

Detractors claimed that the League included ‘the scum of society, criminals, or remnants of the former ruling party, whose salaries were paid by Qatar and who were being Islamized and used against demonstrators’. Support for such local ‘vigilante’ groups also encouraged many of those with grudges against former security personnel, including the locally paid informers, to threaten and assault them with virtual impunity. Not all of these were Islamists; many were simply individuals who had suffered in various ways (for example, arrest, imprisonment, ill-treatment while in detention, etc.) because of charges brought against them on the say-so of a local informer. 

Islamist ‘terrorism’ and state repression

From mid-2013 onwards, political violence, especially by increasingly militant salafists, evolved into a jihadist terrorist threat. Public opinion became more supportive of assertive security policies, and Tunisia’s political parties in turn became even less willing to pursue security sector reform actively. One consequence of this was that the police were increasingly able to act with impunity against those they deemed to be ‘undesirables’, whether Islamists or former RCD supporters. The police remained legally able to hold suspects for six days without pressing charges or processing them in the prison system, according to Human Rights Watch, which additionally gathered testimony showing that detainees were subjected to abuse during arrest and interrogation ranging from threats of rape, shoving, slaps, punches, kicks, and beatings with sticks and batons. 

The government’s concern with the evident threat posed by the radical Islamists and the increasing influence of former RCD loyalists in this context brought it into direct conflict with efforts to implement ‘transitional justice’ to those who had suffered under the previous Ben Ali RCD regime. On 24 December 2013, the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) adopted a law on ‘transitional justice’, which set out a comprehensive approach to addressing past human rights abuses and provided criminal accountability via specialized chambers within the civil court system to adjudicate cases arising from past human rights violations, including abuses committed by military and security forces. The law also established a Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) tasked with uncovering the truth about abuses committed between July 1955, shortly before Tunisia’s independence from France, and the law’s adoption in 2013.

Concern over ‘Islamization’ and a series of assassinations of secular politicians led to a crisis for the government, and Ennahdha actually stepped down following the implementation of a new constitution in January 2014. The party came second, however, with 28 per cent of the vote, in the 2014 Tunisian parliamentary elections, and agreed to form a coalition government with the largest secular party or bloc of parties, Nidaa Tounes. But it did not offer or endorse a candidate in the November 2014 presidential election.

In August 2014, Mehdi Jomaa – the Acting Prime Minister between 29 January 2014 and 6 February 2015 – ordered the suspension of 157 Islamist associations for alleged links to terrorism, basing his decree on a 1975 law that had in fact been amended after the 2011 uprising to limit this power to the judiciary. The government also shut down several radio channels and mosques that it accused of promoting religious extremism without judicial orders, while at the same time police assaults on journalists multiplied. 

The security effort was primarily directed at the Islamist ‘threat’, but former RCD loyalists were also targeted where it seemed appropriate, and those who complained of being harassed and arguably persecuted by local ‘vigilante’ groups and disgruntled individuals tended to get short shrift from the local police and authorities. At the higher level, some action was also taken against senior RCD figures.

A tendency towards state repression was further strengthened by a series of incidents that highlighted the ‘threat’ of the Islamists. Tunisia experienced several deadly attacks by Islamists in 2015 that left dozens of people dead and others injured. On 18 March, two gunmen attacked the Bardo Museum, adjacent to Tunisia’s parliament, killing 21 foreign tourists and one Tunisian security agent. On 26 June, a gunman rampaged through a beach resort in Sousse, killing 38 foreign tourists. On 24 November, a suicide attack on a bus killed 12 presidential guards and wounded 20 others, including four civilians.

These attacks prompted the government to declare a state of emergency. This empowered authorities to ban strikes or demonstrations deemed to threaten public order and to prohibit gatherings ‘likely to provoke or sustain disorder’. At the same time, in July, the government approved a draft Law on Economic and Financial Reconciliation, which, if enacted, would offer broad amnesty to officials of the former Ben Ali regime and would terminate prosecutions and trials of, and cancel any sentences against, corrupt business executives who submit a reconciliation request to a state-run commission.

The contradictions inherent in the current political dispensation, meant that in 2015, Tunisian law still allowed police to deny those they arrested access to a lawyer for the first six days of their detention, typically the period when detainees face the greatest pressure to ‘confess’. The counter-terrorism law adopted in July 2015 extended this to a maximum of 15 days in the case of terrorism suspects, increasing the risk of torture.

On the other hand, on 2 February 2016, parliament adopted revisions to the Code of Criminal Procedure granting suspects the right to a lawyer from the onset of detention and shortening the maximum duration of pre-charge detention to 48 hours, renewable once, for all crimes except for terrorism cases, where pre-charge detention can last up to 15 days. Whether these formal rights are observed in practice remains to be seen.

In April 2016, the UN Committee against Torture welcomed constitutional and legislative progress in the fight against torture, but also noted with concern the persistence of torture in police custody, and consistent reports of the lack of due diligence exercised by judges and judicial police during investigations into torture or ill-treatment. Ironically, on 28 October 2016, Tunisia was elected to the UN Human Rights Council for a three-year term beginning in 2017.

Tunisia in crisis

By 2016, many commentators were remarking on the inability of the state to maintain effective security and to contain and control the various militant groups, many of them Salafist Islamist vigilantes and their opponents. They were also noting the impact of this political turmoil on the state of the economy.

The main industrial sectors, including the oil and gas industry and phosphate extraction, were increasingly threatened by capital flight and questions about future foreign investment, while tourism was adversely affected by the terrorist threat and the reality of attacks on tourist locations. The state corporations providing public utilities were sinking into deficit, and the STEG (the Tunisian  Electricity and Gas Company) was obliged to take out an emergency loan from an African bank to maintain basic services. Smuggling was on the increase and revenues from customs and other sources of taxation were declining.

The economy had grown by only just over 1 per cent in 2015 and by 1 per cent in 2016, with agriculture in particular performing poorly. A national unity government – a coalition of the main political parties and civil society groups – was formed in September 2016 to tackle the urgent economic situation, the consequences of which posed a risk to ‘normal’ politics and to law and order.

In its 2017 Report, the international human rights agency, Human Rights Watch commented that on the one hand the government continued to consolidate formal human rights protections, while on the other serious violations by the state – including arbitrary house arrests, torture of detainees and restrictions under a state of emergency – also continued, and the ability of armed militant groups to terrorize their opponents was evidently not significantly diminished, despite these measures.

A new wave of popular protest

It proved not to be Islamist terrorism that threatened the status quo, but a wave of popular protest, which broke out in the second week of January 2018, across Tunisia but notably in working class suburbs, like Ettadhamen in Tunis, the capital.

The unrest was sparked by a package of tax increases, affecting dozens of consumer goods that took effect on 1 January, after the government had received ‘a nudge’ from the IMF, which had agreed to lend Tunisia $2.9 million to pay off its creditors. Fuel prices, which had been heavily subsidised, were raised, as was the price of bread and phone cards (now considered basic essentials). The government had hoped to reduce the budget deficit of six per cent of GDP and hold down public debt. 

Hoping to head off further unrest, the government announced it would spend an extra 100 million dinars on welfare payments this year, pensions were also set to grow along with health-care benefits for the unemployed. But even these measures would not make much difference to the 240 dinars that constitutes the basic monthly wage. In any case, the explanations and concessions failed to stop the demonstrations. At their height, it was estimated that tens of thousands of people were involved.

When the carrot proved ineffective, the stick was used. The police arrested more than 800 people in a week or so, among them political activists and bloggers, and the army was deployed in some areas. By 20 January 2018, the protests had subsided. But the unrest was a symptom of deeper problems and at their peak there were thousands on the street.

Whither Tunisia?

Seven years after the ‘revolution’, many Tunisians have lost faith in the ‘democratic transition’ that they hoped would bring wider prosperity and greater security. A poll by the International Republican Institute, a US pro-democracy organization found that most Tunisians (over 80 per cent) think their country is going in the wrong direction, as compared with less than 30 per cent in the aftermath of ‘the revolution’ in 2011, and very few (under 20 per cent) consider it to be going in the right direction, as compared with over 60 per cent in 2011. Significantly, when asked whether prosperity or democracy was more important, almost two-thirds chose the former.

Undoubtedly, the ‘the democratic transition’ has stalled. Local elections, postponed four times, were eventually held on 4 May 2018. Ennahdha was the front-runner: with deep roots in the rural areas, including the south (Tataouine) and west (Kebili) – where poverty and unemployment continue to be rife – it was the only party to field lists in all 350 districts.

But both the main parties, Ennahdha and Nidaa Tounes, the secular party that continues to lead the national government, have lost much of their earlier allure and there is considerable disillusionment with regard to both parties. Polls suggested that barely one in five Tunisian planned to vote, compared with nearly 70 per cent in the most recent parliamentary election. This was the first election in which soldiers and the police could vote – they did so on 29 April, but turnout was a bare 12 per cent.

Some politicians feared that the elections would only serve to cause more anger and possibly lead to further disturbances, others feared that apathy and a low turnout would be the manifestation of despair. At least 33 people tried to kill themselves in 2018 in Sidi Bouzid, the impoverished region of about 430,000 people where the Arab spring began. Yet even with a wider mandate, local councils will have limited resources: Tunisia allocates just 4 per cent of its budget to local government (compared with 10 per cent in Morocco).

Whether Tunisia is able to progress towards a more open, more egalitarian economy and society, or whether the historic tendency to impose an authoritarian regime to promote ‘neo-liberalism’ will re-assert itself, remains open to question.

David Seddon is a researcher and political activist who has written extensively on social movements, class struggles and political transitions across the developing world. He studied ‘food riots’ and protest in a ground-breaking study on North Africa and the Middle East Free Markets and Food Riots: the politics of global adjustment with his co-editor John Walton. Seddon also coordinates the roape.net series on Popular Protest and Class Struggle in Africa.

Featured Photograph: Demonstrators in Tunis on 1 May, 2012.


  1. In this piece, I note that ‘at least 33 people tried to kill themselves in 2018 in Sidi Bouzid, the impoverished region… where the Arab spring began’. More recently, Habib Ayeb, scholar activist and contributor to this website (ROAPE.net), has focused on the wave of suicides that has been a feature of popular protest in recent years in the impoverished regions of the south of Tunisia, seeing these as part of a history of resistance to and response to deprivation and despair. Do cross-reference these two pieces.


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