Tumult in Tunisia: the inequalities that fueled protest

[Produced with Tunis-based journalist Layli Foroudi and published here July 30]

TUNIS/BEIRUT, July 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Uprising on the street, parliament suspended and an economy in tatters – Tunisia is in turmoil after protests erupted over a new wave of COVID-19 and an age-old way of doing politics.

The north African nation has been hailed as a beacon of hope in the Arab Spring, but a decade on and demoralised Tunisians returned to the streets to demand change at the top and an end to deep-seated inequalities across society.

Here is a rundown of what stoked the turmoil and the chances for a roadmap out:

What is the root cause of the protest?

The drivers of today’s crisis are not new, having sparked uprisings throughout Tunisian history. 

The most famous was in late 2010, when vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after police confiscated his produce cart, sparking mass demonstrations over unemployment, corruption, and state repression. 

Despite transitioning to democracy, widespread disquiet went unaddressed. Economic development was scant, especially outside the country’s northern regions, said Larbi Sadiki, a political scientist who has studied marginalisation across Tunisia.

In 2019 research for the Brookings Institution, Sadiki found deep disparities in access to healthcare, natural resources, clean air and water, income, employment, and education – with Tunisia’s coast much better-served than its south.

“Inclusive economies do not exist at all,” Sadiki told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

According to official data from 2019, some coastal areas had just over 10% unemployment, while southwestern and southeastern regions had more than double those rates.

“These inequalities have not changed; it’s still more of the same,” said Sadiki.

What’s that got to do with today?

Inequality was a constant cry in this week’s rallies.

“They [the politicians] have a lot of money and we have nothing,” said protester Monia Jardezi, a 50-year-old widow.

“People are dying.”

Fadil Aliriza, editor-in-chief of media organisation Meshkal, said multiple grievances exacerbated the malaise.

“There’s a whole host of different protest movements that have been converging,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“There have been protests around the issues of consumer prices, police violence, the targetting of poorer neighbourhoods where working class people feel economically marginalised.”

Public anger had also been building over austerity measures introduced while Tunisia negotiated with lenders for a $4 billion loan to help stabilise its economy. 

As part of those talks, Tunisia proposed cutting its public sector wage bill and swapping subsidies for more targetted aid. 

Has COVID played a role?

Yes – and in more ways than one.

The pandemic has crushed Tunisia’s tourism sector and successive lockdowns have kept restaurants and cafes closed.

Unemployment has jumped from 15% pre-pandemic to 17.8% this spring, according to the World Bank, which said women and young people were disproportionately affected by rising joblessness.

As food prices shot up and earnings fell, families ate less.

Aliriza said government assistance packages were riddled with arbitrary blindspots, for instance bypassing families that lacked a male head of household. 

“COVID has been absolutely devastating,” he said. “People lost their jobs but didn’t get any help.”

Amnesty International pointed to inequalities in Tunisia’s vaccine rollout, with no priority for vulnerable populations including some health workers, prisoners and the homeless.

It also feared “undue political interference” meant some officials were vaccinated before health workers.

Daily new infections peaked on July 12, and deaths hit a new daily high 10 days later at 204. 

“There is nothing in the country,” said Salah Omrani, a 23-year-old unemployed man from a poor neighbourhood in Tunis.

“With coronavirus, there is nothing – no vaccines, no oxygen, no intensive care. We have nothing here,” he said.

So will those inequalities change?

Saied says “wrong economic choices” led to major financial crises and has pledged to tackle corruption and embezzlement.

Imen Ouni, 33, a medical assistant who joined protests this week, said she retained hope in the face of despair.

“It won’t be worse than the last 10 years – we can’t live with just freedom and then die of hunger,” she said.

Yet in the longer term, change could be hard to win.

“These are structural problems of poverty, marginalisation. Are these going to be fixed in one month or one year? Impossible,” said Sadiki.

“The next generation is going to be paying the taxes of these bad policies.”

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