Eight years after the Jasmine Revolution

Young Tunisians see red

Inspired by Franceʹs "gilets jaunes", the Tunisian "red vest" movement reflects the widespread discontent in the North African country, where protests against spiralling living costs, unemployment, mismanagement and corruption are once again on the increase. By Alessandra Bajec

On 8 December, Tunisian activists circulated an official statement on social media announcing the launch of a new grassroots group ("gilets rouges") that intends to organise peaceful protests against the governmentʹs failure to improve economic conditions. Emulating the French "yellow vests", the group takes its colour from the red of the countryʹs flag.

"Owing to the ruling eliteʹs lack of honesty and transparency and the deepening rift between ordinary people and the government, we – the Tunisian youth – are today launching the Red Vest movement to save Tunisia," the statement read.

The new campaign came just a day after the Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed admitted that the country is still plagued by "widespread corruption", conceding that there has been no serious progress in recent years. Unemployment is seen to be increasing as a result of structural corruption, which is only serving to widen the class divide.

Social media appeal

Followed by 5,300 people within the first 24 hours after it formally took off, the movement now has over 16,320 followers on its Facebook page. Apolitical, without any commercial backing, and relying on a young demographic of Tunisians aged 20 to 40, the Red Vests have so far established at least 12 regional co-ordination committees and dozens of local committees nationwide. Open to all citizens, the newly-founded initiative is still in the process of forming.

At the campaignʹs core are co-founders Yassin Ouerghi and Bourhan al-Ajlani (the latter was detained following the launch), Riadh Jrad and Nejib Dziri, members of the national bureau. The founders are former members of the leftist-affiliated General Union of Tunisian Students (UGET).

Press conference held by the Red Vests on 14 December in Tunis (photo: Alessandra Bajec)
Fresh impetus to build Tunisia’s future: at their launch on 14 December, the Red Vests produced a list of 22 economic and social demands, an increase in the minimum wage to 600 Tunisian Dinar ($200), an increase in the state pension to 400 TND ($135), a strategy for employment, a reduction in the cost of basic necessities, improved living standards, a halt to the privatisation of public companies, urgent reforms in the health, education and public transportation sectors, and – last, but not least – a clampdown on corruption

"There is a huge divide in Tunisia between the coastal regions and the hinterland. The (marginalised) interior is where the 2011 revolution was ignited, yet those areas have seen little or no benefit," complains Ghassen al-Ajlani, Bourhanʹs brother, originally from the Kasserine governorate. He hinted at a "purely neo-liberal, capitalist trend ignoring the countryʹs interior regions."

Shocked by his siblingʹs arrest, he explained that Bourhan is a young bright and highly educated man, anti-Islamist, a long-standing militant from Kasserine, well connected with the revolutionary youth there. He also mentioned some early mobilisations seen throughout the Kasserine region in December, suggesting that his brother may have been behind those social protests.

"A young movement... to build our country's future"

"When news of the Red Vests spread, those at the top started to become afraid. They realise that if the Yellow Vest phenomenon is on the rise in France, the same can happen in Tunisia where people are even more fed up!" argues Ghassen. 

Driven by a call to question the government for its inability to fix the economic crisis, the Red Vests are critical of the ruling regime and all political parties, holding them responsible for the current situation.

"They understand all too well that this movement could take hold in the population, threatening the establishment and their power," notes Ouerghi. "We have a dream, we want to create a young movement to build our countryʹs future," he adds.

Co-founder Yassin Ouerghi cited a few of the 22 economic and social demands listed in the campaign. These include an increase in the minimum wage to 600 Tunisian Dinar ($200), an increase in the state pension to 400 TND ($135), a strategy for employment, a reduction in the cost of basic necessities, improved living standards, a halt to the privatisation of public companies, urgent reforms in the health, education and public transportation sectors, and – last, but not least – a clampdown on corruption.

The demands come amid widespread dissatisfaction with the countryʹs economic state, in an effort to raise the minimum conditions for a decent life and to elevate the aspirations of the young people.

Eight years after the Jasmine Revolution, Tunisia has failed to realise all of the revolutionary ideals, although nine governments have come to power since 2011. While it has succeeded in achieving a democratic transition, its economy has been hit hard, witnessing record levels of inflation (close to 8%) and unemployment (over 15%, with 30% affecting young graduates) and the ongoing collapse of the dinar.

Yassin Ouerghi holding photo of co-founder Bourhan al-Ajlani, currently in detention (photo: Alessandra Bajec)
Too much of a threat? Co-founder Bourhan al-Ajlani was arrested shortly after the Red Vests launch. Well connected with the revolutionary youth in Kasserine, it was arguably Bourhanʹs militant political activism that led to his detention. "When news of the Red Vests spread, those at the top started to become afraid. They realised that if the Yellow Vest phenomenon is on the rise in France, the same can happen in Tunisia where people are even more fed up!" says his brother Ghassen

Confronting the political status quo

The North African state has implemented a set of tough austerity measures such as increasing taxes and cutting fuel subsidies, which has pushed up fuel and energy prices several times, in order to fulfil donorsʹ demands to reform its economy and cut its budget deficit amid the chaos that followed the ousting of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.

Against this background, the Red Vests have emerged to confront the political status quo. During a press conference on 14 December, campaign activists declared that the group was planning peaceful protests in the Tunisian hinterland. A first protest against rising prices and deteriorating purchase power was staged on 17 December in Kasserine to coincide with the 8th anniversary of the Tunisian uprising.

"We want to be the voice of the marginalised and impoverished classes," stated activist Jrad during the press conference. Then: "we demand development, better living conditions for Tunisians, and fight against price hikes. The government and the whole political class have failed."

"Since the revolution weʹre free to speak up, but whatever we say falls on deaf ears. The politicians donʹt listen to us," complains Shili Lassaad, a young man whoʹs thinking of joining the Red Vests movement, "thatʹs why these Tunisian youths have come to the fore to take action."

Having submitted their demands to the Tunisian authorities, the Red Vest campaigners plan to hold a sit-in – "Kasbah 3" – in front of the governmentʹs headquarters. Date to be announced.

Alessandra Bajec

© Qantara.de 2019

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