September 23, 2019 | 90° F

ABDELFATAH: Economic troubles are causing social social unrest in Tunisia

Opinions Column: Global Perspectives

Seven years after the Arab Spring, Tunisians have returned once again to the streets, demanding reform. Since the beginning of the month, small and medium-sized protests have erupted in multiple towns and cities all across the north African country demanding economic opportunity, development and job growth. As of the time of this writing, the protests have begun to die out. Despite this, the protests are significant because of the underlying issues that they reveal. 

This newest round of protests was sparked by a series of price increases and tax hikes that are part of the country’s new finance bill. The bill is a result of austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other international donors. This is not the first time that Tunisians have felt the squeeze of the IMF. In the mid-1980s Tunisia experienced what would become known as the "bread riots,” a series of demonstrations that were sparked by similar austerity measures implemented after talks with the IMF. In response to the demonstrations, an IMF spokesman, Gerry Rice, announced that the IMF does not actually want austerity in Tunisia but instead is looking for “well-designed, well-implemented, socially balanced reforms.” The fund actually recommended measures to the Tunisian government that would protect the poor from the effects of subsidy cuts, according to the Financial Tribune website. 

Although the government has attempted to claim that the price increases are on goods that only affect the rich, the prices of many staple goods, such as bread and phone cards, have increased as well. In an attempt to head off the unrest, the government announced that it would spend an extra 100 million dinars (approximately $40 million dollars) on welfare payments. Unfortunately, this does not amount to much for the average Tunisian — approximately an extra $13 per person — and the welfare payments will still lie below the subsistence wage of 240 dinars per month. As a result, the attempted appeasement measures have had little effect on the protests. 

While relatively small, the demonstrations have been more violent than usual. Dozens of protesters have been injured over the course of the past few weeks, and there has been at least one confirmed death. Protesters have engaged in looting and have even resorted to burning down a police station. It is important to note that not all of the protests have devolved into violence, many protesters have engaged in more peaceful demonstrations, such as sit-ins and rallies. On the government’s side, security forces have cracked down severely on the demonstrations, using tear gas and batons to forcibly disperse the crowds. They have also arrested approximately 1,000 protesters. Human rights groups claim that these arrests have been largely arbitrary and that they have been arresting people simply for protesting rather than having committed any action that would actually be considered an arrestable offense. 

Although the protests themselves are much smaller than those that swept across the country in 2011, they are indicative of a much larger problem: in the eyes of many Tunisians the revolution failed to achieve its goal. Yes, it succeeded in ending authoritarian rule over the country and creating a significantly more democratic system but in many ways Tunisians are no better off now than they were before the Arab Spring. In a poll conducted by the International Republican Institute, two-thirds of Tunisians believed that prosperity was more important than democracy. That same poll showed that Tunisians had an overwhelmingly negative view of the country’s economy with 61 percent of the population answering that the economy was very bad as opposed to just 20 percent immediately after the revolution. The democratic transition has not been without its hiccups. Tunisia has had nine governments in the past seven years, none of which has been able to make any significant progress on the economic front. Faith in the government is weak, and Tunisians look to other channels, such as taking to the street to protest, as more effective means of causing change. 

These factors have caused Tunisians’ faith in democracy to be shaken. The belief was that a democratic transition would lead to an increased standard of living. While the transition has been relatively successful, the expected prosperity did not follow. Many yearn for the days before the revolution, to the days of strongmen rule when although freedom was repressed, people felt that they were better off. In the aforementioned bread riots, the president at the time was able to end them by reversing the subsidy cut — a unilateral move that is impossible to replicate in a democracy. 

Yousuf Abdelfatah is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science and economics. His column, "Global Perspectives" runs on alternate Thursdays.


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Yousuf Abdelfatah

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