Tunisia, still facing massive unemployment, is wracked by another flare up of protests.
On January 16, 28-year old Ridha Yahyaoui, an unemployed college graduate from Tunisia’s impoverished Kasserine governorate, learned that his name was suddenly removed from a list of seventy-five candidates for government jobs. They had been approved for employment six months earlier by Kasserine’s governor and first delegate. In desperation, Yahyaoui climbed atop a utility pole where he was electrocuted. Whether or not he intended to commit suicide is uncertain.
Demonstrations have apparently subsided since January 26 but whether or not protests resume, Tunisia is in a precarious state.
Solidarity protests targeting unemployment immediately erupted in Kasserine. A sit-in at the governorate headquarters began on January 18. On January 19 two unemployed graduates threatened to jump to their deaths from the roof of the government building. The next day protests against unemployment reached the coastal cities of Tunis and Sousse.
The protests in solidarity with Ridha Yahyaoui and the demand of the youth of Kasserine for employment reprises events in the neighboring, and only minimally less miserable, governorate of Sidi Bouzid, five years ago. On December 17, 2010 a street vendor who had been harassed and insulted by the police while attempting to earn a minimal livelihood, poured gasoline on his body and ignited himself in front of the governor’s office. Tarek Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation sparked solidarity protests featuring demonstrators chanting, “A job is a right, you pack of thieves!” This protest movement ultimately toppled former president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, 2011 and inspired uprisings throughout the Arab world. In 2016 protestors in Kasserine and beyond chanted “Work, Freedom, Dignity.”
In 2015 the OECD estimated national youth unemployment (ages 15-24) at nearly 40 percent.
The Nobel Prize for Peace awarded last fall to the Quartet of civil society organizations fostered the mistaken impression that Tunisia was exceptional in having achieved a stable democracy in contrast to the obstruction of popular aspirations expressed during the other Arab uprisings of 2011 in Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Tunisia does now enjoy a procedural democracy, albeit one with increasing limitations. But, the economic and social discontent expressed by the desperate demise of Bouazizi and Yahyaoui has only intensified.
In 2010 the national unemployment rate was under 13 percent. By 2015 the figure rose to 15.3 percent. Unemployment rates in the center-west and southern regions of the country (including Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid) are typically nearly double the national average. In 2015 the OECD estimated national youth unemployment (ages 15-24) at nearly 40 percent.
Two of the Quartet members, the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), and the Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH), along with the Union of Unemployed Graduates (UDC) and the General Union of Tunisian Students (UGET), were in the forefront of organizing demonstrations in Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid, and beyond. Protests eventually extended to sixteen (of twenty-four) governorates. Youth defied the curfew proclaimed on January 20 and torched the offices of the ruling Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia) ruling party in Kasserine.
The government understands the problem, but has no solution. On January 20 the cabinet announced that 5,000 unemployed in Kasserine would be hired for new public sector jobs. Another 1,400 were to be hired through an existing employment program. However, on January 22, Finance Minister Slim Chaker revoked the promise of 5,000 new jobs in Kasserine, claiming that the previous announcement was due to a “communication error.”
The government understands the problem, but has no solution.
The government has responded less harshly to the protests than was the norm during the Ben Ali regime. Nonetheless, security forces have liberally used tear gas (rather than live ammunition) to disperse demonstrators and wounded at least fourteen. Much of the privately owned media has amplified the government’s effort to frame the events in the discourse of national security and counter-terrorism.
National security is a real issue. There were three major terrorist attacks in 2015. Armed groups from northern Mali have relocated to the mountain range near Kasserine and established a low-level insurgency. Police are subjected to periodic attacks. On its eastern border, Tunisia is threatened by spillover from the collapse of the state in Libya, which has become a base for the Islamic State (ISIS).
Demonstrations have apparently subsided since January 26, although the sit-in at the headquarters at the Kasserine provincial headquarters continues as of January 30, augmented by a hunger strike. About fifty women continue to demonstrate daily in front of the municipal building of Jebiniana in the Sfax governorate. Additional details are difficult to verify, as there has been a virtual news blackout.
Whether or not protests resume, Tunisia is in a precarious state.
“There will be another revolution if the social and economic circumstances do not change,” said President Béji Caïd Essebsi on the fifth anniversary of Tarek Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation. Nidaa Tounes, a big-tent coalition of secularists ranging from former communists to former Ben Ali supporters has split. Over two dozen of its deputies have left, and it is no longer the largest party in the parliament. The terrorist attacks have reduced tourism to a catastrophically low level. The economy is not expected to grow at all in 2016. None of its traditional elite political forces—secular or Islamist—imagine an economic program substantially different than the one Tunisia has pursued since the mid-1980s.
The UGTT leadership has taken a distance from the violence involved in the protests against unemployment while continuing to play its traditional role. On January 19, faced with a UGTT threat to call a general strike, the employers’ association (UTICA) agreed to increase wages for about 1.5 million private sector workers. But for the unemployed, the streets are their only recourse.
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