In the evening of January 10, security forces pulled up in front of Ahmed Sassi’s home and arrested him in front of his friends and neighbors. Sassi was not asked for his ID card or for any explanation of why he was there, reported Nawaat, a Tunisian journalist collective. Instead, security forces immediately began hitting him and took him into custody.
Sassi is one of the more than 800 protesters arrested in Tunisia since early January, when people began taking to the streets over a sudden increase in the price of several everyday goods. While the Ministry of Commerce emphasized that subsidies for basic goods like oil and sugar did not change, anyone who drinks coffee, juice, or tea, smokes cigarettes, uses fuel, or takes locally manufactured medicines noticed an increase in costs. The increases were set by the 2018 budget, passed in December, which also raised some taxes, froze hiring in the public sector, and decreased public-sector wages.
The protests inspired by the new budget law have spanned some twenty cities and towns nationwide, leaving one person dead in addition to the hundreds arrested. They echo the 2011 uprising, which brought down the twenty-three-year dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and pushed Tunisia into a remarkable transition. That transition included a multiyear constitution-writing process, ending in the election of the current government, and a world-class transitional justice commission tasked with investigating human rights abuses perpetrated by the former government and its agents going back to independence in 1955.
But this time, the target of the protests is broader than just the Tunisian state. Chief among the culprits of the price hikes, argue organizers, is the International Monetary Fund. Writing in the Guardian on January 17, Jihen Chandoul, head of the independent watchdog group Observatoire Tunisien de l’Economie, accused the conference of international lenders that convened after the Arab Spring of hobbling Tunisia with debt and imposing a series of austerity measures on the country through its loans. (After Egypt, Tunisia has received the largest share of $35 billion in loans that the IMF promised North African countries after 2011.)
The Observatoire’s analysis, based on Ministry of Finance data, shows a “wall of debt” facing the country. In 2018, 22 percent of the state’s budget will go to servicing debt payments, up from 17 percent in 2016. That is in addition to obligations to decrease the state deficit and allow the devaluing of the Tunisian dinar, further weakening Tunisians’ purchasing power. These austerity measures together guarantee further pain for poor and middle-class Tunisians, who still suffer from widespread unemployment.
In an indication of how pointed these attacks are, the IMF responded to Chandoul, saying her claims were misplaced. “Tunisia’s fragile economic condition is a result of not just external shocks,” referring to terrorist attacks and the EU’s economic crisis, the spokesperson for the IMF wrote, “but also its model of state patronage: the public sector provides every fifth job.” The IMF’s statement denies it advocates austerity and repeatedly calls for growth and fairness.
If the IMF maintains that there is a brighter future on the other side of these policies, the thousands of Tunisians who have taken to the streets over the last three weeks remain unconvinced. In 2017, youth unemployment (that is, among people aged 15–24), was at 35 percent, and at no time in the last twenty-five years has it dropped below 27 percent. For many people, even those in their thirties and forties, what the IMF characterizes as economic frustration is really a lifetime of waiting.
Periodically, through demonstrations, Tunisians remind their elites and international finance institutions that this is not acceptable. In May 2017, people near Tataouine, Tunisia’s southernmost city, disrupted oil production, demanding that the area see greater benefit from this resource extraction. Now, since January 3, people in the capital Tunis as well as Kasserine, Gafsa, Terbourba, and other cities have chanted about hunger, price increases, and overturning the government’s budget. In Tunis, activists organized around the slogan Fech nestannew, or “What are we waiting for?” In Kasserine, another anti-government movement calls itself “Enough.” These are calls of last resort. How much worse does it have to get before we won’t take it anymore?
The threat lingers that resistance will again become more dangerous. Under Ben Ali, the law criminalized vague offenses like inciting rebellion or disturbing public order, and along with them, the basic work of social and political organizing. Merely carrying pamphlets, for example, was a crime. The government didn’t just arrest and torture people who were politically active, it ruined their futures at university and made it impossible to get work. The regime impoverished whole families this way.
Today, Tunisia has a mixed political system based on the 2014 constitution. President Beji Caid Essebsi’s party Nidaa Tunis—a secular coalition of former Ben Ali officials, business interests, and human-rights activists—holds the majority in parliament, though the government is technically headed by the prime minister. Nidaa governs in coalition with Ennahda, the well-known Islamist party, a partnership that is often trying for both parties; despite the apparent promise of two former rivals joining together, the effectiveness of the grand coalition is in real question. The government has not implemented important parts of the 2014 constitution, including a constitutional court, and now, Essebsi is pushing to amend the constitution in an effort avoid major institutional reforms and consolidate power.
There are opposition parties, including the Front Populaire, a left party formed in the wake of the 2011 uprising, which is the fourth-largest in parliament—albeit with only fifteen of 217 members. The party has backed the street protests, calling for an end to austerity and the funding of the government through taxes on the wealthy.
Despite greater political pluralism today, the memory of state repression is very close. Starting in November 2016, Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission, which is charged with a running a transitional justice process, sponsored a series of televised testimonies where people who suffered torture and abuse under the previous government and during the 2011 uprising told their stories. Family members holding framed photos of deceased relatives wept in the audience. The testimonies are a remarkable political feat, especially as more and more Ben Ali officials have returned to power.
Additionally, the mandate for the transitional justice process included economic crimes, meaning corruption by state officials and businessmen. But in September 2017, the parliament passed a law introduced by President Essebsi, himself a former Ben Ali–era minister, that pardoned state officials accused of economic crimes. Human rights groups and academics warned that the law undermines democracy and trust in the government, which is precisely the charge that this latest round of protests makes.
The movement opposing the economic “reconciliation” law called itself Maneesh M’sameh or “We will not forgive.” A majority of members of parliament passed the law over the movement’s objections, which makes for a stark contrast in moral obligations. Former officials involved in corruption, in stealing money from the people and the state, are forgiven, but there is no quarter for Tunisians in the marginalized cities without regular employment. They must pay their debts.
One other important factor remains unchanged since 2011: the police. Tunisia’s security sector has not been fundamentally reformed, so the police then are still the police now. And the government has effectively endorsed a crackdown on the latest protests, by drawing a distinction between troublemakers and criminals who are disturbing the peace and real Tunisians who face economic hardships. The distinction is meant to deter people from participating, and to justify the use of force, including rounds of tear gas and mass arrests. The Tunisian media has emphasized people vandalizing public property, burning tires, and throwing rocks at the police. Major news outlets publish videos from inside security-force vehicles or behind police lines.
On January 12, Amnesty International called on the government to refrain from using excessive force against peaceful demonstrators, and to stop arresting activists working with Fech nestannew. They specifically called for the release of activist Ahmed Sassi, who was arrested in front of his home on January 10. Whether as a result of Amnesty’s appeal or not, Sassi was released two days later after questioning.
Writing on Facebook in the days after his release, Sassi issued a call for continued protests and resistance, which turns the state’s logic back on itself:
The authorities are giving a lesson in what must not be . . .
Who is the vandal?
The terrorist? Who cultivated him?
Poverty? Who grew it?
Corruption? Who protects it?
The collaborators? Who finished them?
A strong Tunisia is possible.
The struggle continues on the ground.
These words summarize the political struggle in Tunisia, from the collaborators of colonial times, to the persecution of Islamists under the Ben Ali regime, to the current administration’s war against terror. Not to mention the corrupt officials and businessmen who have enriched themselves at the expense of the Tunisian people. In Facebook messages, Sassi explained the last line as a call for organizing people at the local level. The ground game is what will win.
Tunisia’s strength is in its social institutions: the unions, the student groups, the NGOs that monitor human and economic rights and track the parliament. These social movements are fighting powerful groups in the government, which is backed by the force of international finance institutions, and by a moral logic that prioritizes interest payments over wages. The odds are not in their favor, but what else do they have to lose? In so many ways, the situation in Tunisia is a particularly vivid representation of struggles for political representation and economic redistribution everywhere: who pays first and who gets paid first are matters of power. So for now, as Sassi says, the struggle continues on the ground.
Thalia Beaty is a journalist with Storyful, a news agency that specializes in verifying media, and has previously reported from Tunisia, Morocco, and Germany.