Tunisians stage sit-ins at vital industrial sites, protest ailing economy

Government’s failure to implement reforms promised after Jasmine Revolution behind the unrest, experts say.

Protests in Tunisia  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Protests in Tunisia
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A decade after the Tunisian Revolution, aka the Jasmine Revolution, protests have been escalating for weeks now in the country’s long marginalized south and interior, demanding the government provide jobs and keep its promises to finance development projects.
In an effort to pressure the authorities, most of the sit-ins are being held at vital industrial sites, leading to shortages of basic materials, especially cooking gas.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi stressed the necessity for immediate action “to maintain the rule of law” and “to open roads and restart production sites.”
Nizar al-Makan, an analyst and instructor at the Institute of Press and Political Sciences in Tunis, told The Media Line that protests started in the south, in the wake of the government’s failure to fulfill its pledges regarding employment.
“These promises related to providing job opportunities to the youth of these areas, in projects financed with proceeds from oil and petroleum companies operating there,” Makan said.
In November, Mechichi promised to begin implementation of the June 2017 Kamour Agreement, which guaranteed Tunisians access to jobs and project financing, amid a package of measures designed to boost investment and improve the living conditions of citizens. The government signed the agreement two months after hundreds of protesters occupied an oil and gas facility at Kamour, in southern Tunisia.
Makan explained, however, that the divisions between the political blocs in the legislature have made political stability impossible, with inevitable bad economic and social consequences. “The dynamic of state institutions have become passive and ineffective, where we have had three governments since last year’s November elections.”
When the government’s promises went unkept, protests with the same demands erupted, expanded and spread to other regions, “which is natural,” he said.
Nevertheless, Makan pointed out that the Tunisian General Labor Union had presented an initiative for a national dialogue to address the crisis at the political, economic and social levels.
“This initiative can provide an opportunity to put the train back on track, as what distinguishes the Tunisian experience from others is that the thread of dialogue is always open with the political parties,” he said.
Only such a dialogue, leading to a commitment to the necessary social and economic reforms, could be the first building block for a new start in Tunisia, Makan said.
Mechichi’s government, which took office in September, came amid complaints from political parties of being sidelined, as the cabinet consists of academics, public servants and experts rather than professional politicians.
The 28-day Tunisian Revolution was triggered in December 2010, when Mohammed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor, set himself on fire in the central city of Sidi Bouzid after being mistreated by police. His self-immolation brought many out into the streets to demand social justice.
But the Tunisian economy has continued to suffer. According to the North African country’s National Institute of Statistics, the unemployment rate rose to 15.1% in the first quarter of 2020, and to 18% in the second quarter, with the coronavirus crisis playing a big role. Joblessness has caused many young Tunisians to flee the country in hopes of securing a better future.
Mohamed Dhia Hammami, a Tunisia- and US-based research consultant and writer for the Nawaat collective blog, Jadaliyya ezine, and The New Arab news website, clarified to The Media Line that almost every year since 2011, the country has seen protests in this season, as discussions begin on the next state budget. “People put pressure on the government to take into consideration their demands for the coming year,” he said.
Hammami elaborated that there were other reasons behind the increasing protests, as the social and economic demands of the revolution had not been met and the situation remained unchanged “regarding employment and basic social and economic rights, their right to access to healthcare, their right to have a decent income that can provide for basic needs.”
Demonstrators were also demanding access to public services, as access to hospitals has become particularly difficult during the coronavirus pandemic.
When asked why the government had been unable to meet the demands of the demonstrators, Hammami blamed its approach to economic reform. “The government still believes that by liberalizing the economy in terms of investment, things will go well, which obviously isn’t true,” he said.
“They are still following the same [economic] orientation as [former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali,” he continued
Ben Ali resigned from the presidency and fled the country in January 2011, in the wake of the Tunisian Revolution protests.
Hammami added that the depreciation of the national currency had a role in the current situation, where since 2013, the central bank had been working with the International Monetary Fund to reduce the value of the dinar, expecting that this would lead to an increase in exports and improve the economic situation. “But that didn't happen because of the inflation in the prices of almost everything, because the price of imports increased, while salaries remained low.”
Attorney Donia Osman, a Tunisian citizen who has been active in the recent protests, told The Media Line the protests were justified and that there were many strikes extended to almost all sectors in the country.
“This government does not have any plan, roadmap, program or vision, and is not able to provide hope to Tunisian men and women, not on the level of healthcare, nor on the economic and social level, nor at the political level,” Osman said.
There is no real plan to combat the spread of COVID-19 or to care for people infected with the virus, she continued. People have died because clinics refused to admit them unless they first provided a guarantee of payment, “which is illegal and constitutes a crime.”
The government has proven that it has no plan to improve the economy, or to at least to ameliorate the crisis and “combat unemployment and poverty, she said.
“And in addition to that, it lacks any will to fight corruption,” Osman said.
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