On 17 December 2010, as Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself in protest at corruption and economic decay, the Arab Spring was born. Seven years after the Jasmine Revolution, which overthrew the autocratic president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian people have taken to the streets once more.
Nearly 800 have been arrested; police and soldiers have been deployed in towns. At least 35 people have died, according to the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights. “We are in a democracy, and those who want to protest can do it during the day, not at night,” declared the Tunisian prime minister, Youssef Chahed.
The nationwide demonstrations are focused on the government’s 2018 budget, which would raise taxes and reduce food subsidies. Austerity is being imposed on a population already under economic strain: high youth unemployment (32 per cent), high inflation (6 per cent) and stagnant wages.
Tunisia has maintained economic stability – despite nine governments since the fall of Ben Ali – but the latest budget would suppress living standards for much of the population. Political and economic grievances have combined to create profound alienation. Tunisians have long used protest as a mechanism for signalling dissatisfaction with their rulers. In the mid-19th century, the people revolted over tax rises as the government fought to avoid bankruptcy. The constitution was suspended and within a few years the administration had collapsed.
More recently, in 1983-84, the Bread Riots targeted the austere “economic stabilisation” programme imposed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The policy forced the government to double the price of wheat overnight by removing subsidies. When violence broke out, austerity was swiftly reversed.
As the most democratic and politically liberal of Islamic nations, Tunisia has long been the forerunner of progress in the region. Its geographic condition of open, natural borders exposed it to new ideologies and political influences. Its economy flourished from substantial agricultural exports, despite the country being overrun by multiple empires.
But economic hardship began when Tunisian exports to Europe were restricted. After several years of recession, the country was saved from bankruptcy only by foreign loans, leading to direct imperial rule by France.
Strained economic conditions continue to drive Tunisia’s new revolt. In spite of the shift towards stronger democratic institutions since 2011 (the country’s National Dialogue Quartet was awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize), living standards have not improved. The unemployment rate has decreased marginally during this time, but the rising trade deficit and the devaluation of the dinar has left citizens struggling to afford food as their purchasing power declines. Not unlike the conditions which led to the Bread Riots, the government again faces fiscal pressures from abroad.
In 2016, Tunisia’s leaders accepted a $2.9bn IMF loan to improve economic growth, employment and public institutions. As a condition of the loan, the country must reduce its foreign debt. But though there has been a decrease in the annual trade balance since the revolution, currency devaluation and a stagnant economy have hindered national debt reduction. The country’s once-thriving tourism industry has still not recovered from the deadly terror attacks in Sousse and the capital, Tunis, in 2015.
While the demonstrations have similar roots to many earlier protests, the Arab Spring reintroduced an actor not seen in Tunisian activism for a century: the young. Around the turn of the 20th century, a youth movement for Tunisian self-determination enjoyed significant political influence. Even though the movement was suppressed by French authorities, it ignited the quest for independence.
Following the Jasmine Revolution, a national opinion poll found that the protests had been driven by three groups: the young, the unemployed and the economically disadvantaged. At this time, unemployment among 15-35-year-olds stood at a remarkable 85 per cent.
The movement resulted in a radical transformation of Tunisian political institutions: free elections in a pluralistic democracy. No other country in the region has come close to matching Tunisia’s advances (the current government is a coalition of Islamist and secular parties). But social and economic grievances endure.
Now that the youth have been mobilised, their engagement will continue until their demands are met. A new movement named Fech Nestannew (“What Are We Waiting For?”) has invoked the spirit of the 2011 revolution and demanded “employment, freedom and national dignity”. Hazem Chikhaoui, a 22-year-old student representative in Tunis, said the security forces were “aiming to terrorise and silence protesters through systematic violence”. Heythem Guesmi, of another group, Manich Msamahm (“I Will Not Forgive”), denounced the budget for making “the rich richer and the poor poorer”.
Owing to the anti-austerity demonstrations, the government has already announced concessions including free medical aid for unemployed youth, higher state pensions, increased financial assistance for poor families and the establishment of an affordable housing fund.
In spite of these measures, the protests continue. Citizens have won their political freedom, now they want economic rights. Tunisia’s government faces a profound conundrum. It will be almost impossible simultaneously to meet its promises to international creditors and satisfy domestic demands. Though the unrest may dissipate in the short term, Tunisia’s history proves that it will likely resurge.
Corine Wood-Donnelly is a researcher in human geography and international relations at Cambridge University
This article appears in the 17 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history