Taking on the IMF
Eight years after the Jasmine Revolution that forced the resignation of Tunisia’s ex-president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali following almost four weeks of mass protests, the nation has come back down to earth with a bump. The initial euphoria over newly-gained social freedoms and the end of the dictatorship has long dissipated, giving way to an omnipresent sense of disillusionment – first and foremost in Tunisia’s marginalised hinterland. Unsurprisingly, social tensions have been building massively here since 2018.
Whereas coastal regions are faring relatively well thanks to the tourism industry, provinces such as Kasserine have been neglected for decades, says the president of the Tunisian human rights organisation FTDES, Messaoud Romdhani. "Kasserine is one of the country’s most underprivileged regions: the illiteracy rate is very high, there are no specialist doctors and the infrastructure is poor. Most people here live off the informal economy," says the human rights activist.
There’s also been a dramatic rise in socially or economically-motivated suicide attempts, he adds, most by self-immolation. The FTDES documented 467 suicides or attempted suicides nationwide in 2018 alone.
"People here hoped for a certain level of social justice and expected the 2011 revolts to lead to change," says Romdhani. But very little has happened. The central government may have tried to calm the situation in Kasserine with superficial measures in a bid to gain time, but genuine structural reform was never on the political agenda, says Chafik Ben Rouine from OTE, a Tunis-based NGO specialised in economic and social policy.
IMF as catalyst for social tensions
While in the country’s interior, there are growing calls for investment and improvements to infrastructure, the government continues to keep a tight hold on the purse-strings. A 2.8 billion U.S. dollar loan from Tunisia’s most important foreign donor, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), came tied to a drastic programme of austerity. As well as a civil service recruitment freeze and wage freezes in the public sector, the programme also included painful subsidy cuts.
Economic and social policies expedited by the government since then have been aimed at stabilising the nation macro-economically, but do not offer any effective antidote to the resulting socio-economic upheaval.
In the meantime, the austerity programme imposed by the IMF has acted as a catalyst, further exacerbating the nation’s social difficulties, primarily in inland regions, while at the same time doing little or nothing to address the structural problems facing the Tunisian economy. Inflation rose to 7.5 percent in 2018 and the jobless rate exceeded 15 percent – a figure that rose to more than 30 percent among university graduates. The huge slump in the value of the Tunisian dinar, subsidy cuts and inflation pushed real purchasing power down to 40 percent in 2018.
Yet again, especially hard hit have been Tunisia’s marginalised regions, where economically and socially-motivated forms of protests continue to take on more radical forms, for example self-immolation. While those in informal employment have limited possibilities to exert effective pressure on central government, members of Tunisia’s organised workforce are increasingly adopting a confrontational course with the political leadership of the country and the IMF.