Lessons from the unrest in Tunisia

Free in name only

Although the protests in Tunisia are gradually dying down, the country′s political class still finds itself confronted with dissatisfaction from large sections of the population. Alongside political freedoms, the government now also needs to keep the social promises of 2011, says Tunisian journalist Ismael Dbara

In the winter month of January, scenes of protest and violence are nothing unusual in Tunisia. The North African country has seen events like these many times in the past, even before the 2011 revolution against Ben Ali′s regime.

January protests took place when tensions emerged between the Tunisian trade union congress, the "Union Generale Tunisienne du Travail" (UGTT) and the government of the late Habib Bourguiba in 1978, during the bread riots of 1984, the events in Gafsa in 2008 and the fall of Ben Ali′s regime in 2011.

In the years following the revolution, January has continued to be a "month of rage". But although it looks as though the protests are a direct reaction to the budget law, it is becoming clear that January 2018 must be viewed in a special light.

An outmoded development model

The demonstrators – most of them young Tunisians who also took part in the 2011 uprising against the Ben Ali regime – are still making the same demands seven years later. The economy is still in crisis, living conditions are still poor and they once again find themselves at the heart of social protests, though their calls for work, freedom and dignity are falling on deaf ears.

Protests against corruption and cronyism in the education sector (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Cronyism and jockeying for position behind closed doors: many young Tunisians with excellent academic qualifications are frustrated by the ongoing unemployment among their generation, as well as by the unjust allocation of lucrative jobs in the education sector to those with close links to the country′s elite

This shows that the measures taken by successive governments to combat unemployment and bring price rises, inflation, debt and the trade deficit under control, as well as to halt the dinar′s fall in value against foreign currencies, have been unsuccessful.

In total, nine governments in Tunis′s Kasbah Square have failed to find a way out of the country′s increasingly acute economic plight, rekindling the Tunisian people′s rage day after day. The unemployment rate has now risen to around 15 percent, with the figure for the under-30s at almost 30 percent, while inflation has risen to 6.4 percent.

Production has now resumed in the incredibly important phosphate sector and income from tourism, which had suffered badly in the wake of terrorist attacks, is rising, but these things have had little positive impact on the socio-economic situation of many Tunisians. The same goes for the increased profits achieved by the agricultural sector in the past year.

Tunisia′s economic development has been on the same track since the mid-1980s. It began with the "programme of structural reform", which was essentially nothing but an asymmetrical mortgage in view of the international financial situation. Tunisia′s economy became dependent and increasingly vulnerable. As a result, it attracted increasingly modest volumes of investment, which it was only able to transform into jobs and growth in a very limited way. At the same time, workers′ social rights were gradually being stripped away.

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