Tunisia: a recurrent, explosive challenge but for the time being vain

Ⓒ AFP – Faouzi DRIDI – | Tunisians protest against austerity measures in Siliana, south of Tunis, late 11 January 2018

The surge of social protest in Tunisia against the austerity measures highlights the fragility of the democratic compromise but lacks political relays to change the situation in depth.

Q: How to compare this movement with previous mobilizations, recurrent in recent years?

If the trigger this year has been a finance law providing for tax increases after a year of strong price increases, “the bottom of claims remains the same as since 2011,” said Selim Kharrat, a Tunisian political analyst.

The protesters claim above all dignity and work, the slogans of the revolution that overthrew the dictatorship in 2011 (“work, freedom, national dignity”).

They are also “the same populations who carry these demands: young unemployed, who often do not find other ways than riots to express their demands in the absence of formal networks of consultation, especially at the local level” says Kharrat.

But if beforehand the clashes occurred after generally peaceful demonstrations, “the explosion of violence was almost immediate” at the beginning of this year, underlines the Tunisian political scientist Hamza Meddeb. This researcher attached to the London-based Institute of International Relations Chatham House explains this by a “very strong social anger” and a “political class increasingly cut off from the population”.

While it is difficult to quantify the mobilization to compare recent unrest at the last major wave in 2016, the tension seems to be falling more quickly. The prospect of a curfew, decreed for days two years ago, seems to move away for the moment with a lull since Thursday night.

Q: Does the opposition drive the challenge as the government insists?

The Fech Nestannew (“What is Expected”) campaign, initiated by activists and members of civil society at the beginning of the year against the 2018 Finance Act, is close to the Popular Front, a party of the left opposition.

“But it is giving a lot of credit to this campaign to think that it is behind the current wave of protest,” says Meddeb.

The peaceful gatherings she calls during the day mobilize little. Many protesters, scalded by broken promises after previous protests, reject all political parties, including the Popular Front.

Ⓒ AFP – FETHI BELAID – | Security forces detain protester in Ettadhamen, a suburb of Tunis, January 10, 2018

The mobilization is especially strong at night. “Many movements are spontaneous, they are born of the true anger of disenchanted youth,” said Meddeb. It includes “apolitical elements who just want to fight, political elements that seek escalation and radicalization, and criminal elements who take advantage of the troubles” to loot and rob.

But the contestation of impoverished youth “has little political relays,” he says, especially since no party or union wants to see the government fall, in the run-up to the municipal elections (2018 ), Presidential and Legislative (2019).

Q: What scenarios for the future?

Hamza Meddeb, for lack of relay, this movement will have “no impact on the political system and stability of the country” and may well run out of steam after the seventh anniversary of the revolution on Sunday.

“If the situation gets bogged down, there could be a reshuffle in sign of concession,” he says.

This is the answer that has been favored many times over social challenges over the past seven years.

But Kharrat warns: a reshuffle “only repels the problem and accumulates frustrations”. “The longer we wait to respond to the demands of marginalized regions and populations, the more the mobilizations will become explosive”.

The unrest is likely to lead to a new turn of the screw, as shown by the government’s most secure response. The think tank International Crisis Group (ICG) also warned Thursday against a “temptation” of a return to authoritarianism.

But for Mr Meddeb, despite a growing presidentialisation of the regime contrary to the spirit of the 2014 Constitution, this temptation “can not materialize” because of the balance of power.

“The country is in a very uncomfortable between-two, between a democracy that has failed and a second impossible revolution”, each counter-power seeking to preserve its achievements.

Terms of service