Protests are once again shaking Tunisia. A new finance law, which imposes drastic austerity measures on the country’s workers, has sparked a wave of resistance. Put into effect on January 1, this legislation meets the requirements of a $2.9-billion IMF loan by increasing prices on basic goods, reducing public sector employment, and hiking the value-added tax (VAT). The government is repressing the uprising harshly: it’s already killed a protester and arrested 800 others.
Seven years after the successful revolution against dictator Ben Ali, the economic inequities of his system remain. The government projects an image of Tunisian exceptionalism: it embraces Western liberal values, becoming the “modern,” “progressive,” and “democratic” exception within the colonially constructed image of the “Arab world.” This self-presentation is designed to obscure three decades of neoliberal economic policies, undertaken to please the West.
Both the pre- and postrevolutionary governments followed the instructions of Bretton Woods institutions. They privatized a majority of state-owned assets, public institutions, natural resources, and subsidies for fuel and food. The West sees the overthrow of Ben Ali as a “successful revolution,” in contrast to the unfolding wars in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. But the Tunisian working class is still struggling against the nation’s economic reality.
Forever a Loan
Following the end of the French rule 1956, Tunisia was ruled by two dictators: Habib Bourguiba and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
Bourguiba adapted the values of the French colonial power to create an image of a modern and secular Tunisia. Often portrayed by his allies as a “radical cultural modernizer,” Bourguiba promoted the interests of the economic elite, largely disregarding workers. He developed an export-oriented economic policy that relied on domestic oil revenues, foreign borrowing, and labor remittances.
But all three sectors dried up in 1980, leaving the country in a debt crisis. Bourguiba accepted an IMF loan and adopted its structural adjustment program. The price of bread rose by over 100 percent. Bread riots and labor unrests, led by the Tunisian labor union UGTT — which had planned a massive general strike in 1978 — broke out. The government declared a state of emergency, then deployed the police and army to repress the protests, killing more than one hundred. The demonstrations weakened Bourguiba’s rule and opened the door for Ben Ali’s coup d’état three years later.
Ben Ali renamed Bourguiba’s secularist Destourian Party to be the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD) and continued his predecessor’s economic policies, further privatizing public assets. The country soon faced 10 percent inflation. Debt service accounted for 21 percent of the GDP, with external debt eating up 46 percent of the nation’s economy.
Committed to free market reforms and praised by the international finance community, Ben Ali decreased the state’s regulatory, financial, and productive roles in the economy. He cut public spending, further liberalized foreign investments and trade, and privatized public services and state institutions. Alongside low wages, high unemployment, and a failing welfare system, his economic model allowed for endemic corruption. As of 2010, Ben Ali’s family, the Trabelsi clan, controlled one-third of the Tunisian economy.
The working class in rural, southern Tunisia was hit especially hard. In 2008, phosphate miners in Gafsa started a six-month protest against corrupt hiring practices. They also mounted resistance to the privatization of the country’s natural resources and an open-door policy that allows multinational corporations to make cheap energy grabs.
In 2011, when youth unemployment reached 30 percent, Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself as a martyr, screaming “freedom to Tunisia.” The masses recognized themselves in his protest. He belonged to the Tunisian educated youth, frustrated by its undermined expectations, and refused to live under such precarious economic conditions.
Calling for “work, freedom, dignity,” young workers revolted against the economic elites, leading to the overthrow of Ben Ali. Though the youth largely organized these revolutionary protests, the UGTT was crucial in the revolution’s success. With offices all over Tunisia, the union opened its doors for political meetings and coordinated resistance.
Following Ben Ali’s ouster, Rached Ghannouchi and other exiled opposition leaders returned to Tunis. Ghannouchi’s Islamic Ennahda Party won the first postrevolutionary election, but he handed the presidency over to social-democrat Moncef Marzouki.
The rift between the secular ruling class and the religious proletariat deepened. Ghannouchi capitalized on this divide, promising voters he would reinstate religious freedoms for the working class.
Against Ghannouchi’s Islamist party, Ben Ali’s former prime minister Mohamed Beji Caid Essebsi launched Nidaa Tounes. Made up of former RCD members, this party remains committed to Ben Ali’s economic program. Nidaa Tounes won a majority of votes in the 2014 elections. Since then, men of the old regime, reorganized under the banner of Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes, have governed in coalition.
Sharing a neoliberal framework and an economic reconciliation project that grants immunity to corrupt elites — sealed with the September 2017 amnesty bill — the coalition has received praise from the international community for its peaceful, unitary governance.
The coalition has enacted economic policies to fulfill the requirements of a loan it received from the Deauville Partnership with Arabic Countries in Transition. Created at the 2011 G8 summit in Deauville, this partnership unites the IMF, the World Bank, the G8, Turkey, and the Gulf countries to offer huge loans to Arab Spring nations in exchange for neoliberal reforms. In 2012 and 2016, the postrevolutionary government took out additional IMF loans, entailing further austerity measures.
Meanwhile, the Left formed the Popular Front for the Realization of the Objectives of the Revolution, an electoral alliance that brought together the Democratic Patriots’ Unified Party, the Movement of Socialist Democrats (which has left the group), the Workers’ Party, the Tunisian Ba’ath Movement, the Greens, the Arab Democratic Vanguard Party, and other groups.
As the rift between the secular elites and the more religious working class deepened, the Tunisian left further abandoned its more class-conscious position. Before the revolution, when women were prohibited to wear the hijab under Circular 108, leftists fought for women’s right to wear the headscarf. Now, the organized left prioritizes secularist identity over the long-term process of winning support and deepening its social base. This identity has become a precondition for entering certain leftist spaces.
It marks individuals based on clothing and symbols, and the Left has predominately replaced the term “religious” with “Islamist.”
The UGTT follows a secularist agenda, but it has managed to bridge this divide in cases of direct worker organizing.
A Liberal Shield
The government, for its part, maintains its image of Tunisian exceptionalism by rhetorically supporting women’s rights. Under Bourguiba and Ben Ali, legislation was passed concerning women’s rights, but women were underrepresented in public life. The only women who exercised considerable influence belonged to the presidential families.
Autonomous women’s rights organizations that opposed First Lady Leila Ben Ali or refused to subordinate themselves to the RCD’s party line were systematically oppressed, persecuted, and censored. Women were largely restricted to the private sphere, leaving the public sphere almost entirely male.
Women nevertheless played crucial roles in the anti-colonial struggle, the UGTT general strike in 1978, the 1984 bread riots, and the 2008 Gafsa revolt.
Now, the postrevolutionary government is using gender equality to hide the nation’s economic bankruptcy and human rights abuses. The new constitution stipulates gender equality and gender parity in elected assemblies. But these remain vague promises rather than reality. At the same time, self-organized feminist collectives countering the government such as Chaml or Chouf as well as movements such “the Feminine Movement of Menzel Bouzayane” in which women in Sidi Bouzid — one of the poorest regions of Tunisia — protest against unemployment are shaping the new postrevolutionary political landscape in Tunisia.
Tunisia’s New Left
Over the past seven years, the Tunisian left has reorganized and restructured itself. The leftist youth, which stood at the forefront of the struggle for political and democratic rights, has used its new power to fight for the revolution, creating new forms of organizing and reaching beyond the leftist contexts of the prerevolutionary period.
The UGTT, with a membership of 900,000 workers, made the revolution possible. But, after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015, it has become more of a peacekeeper than an organizer.
Its leadership remains loyal to the regime. When the new finance bill first appeared in November 2017, the UGTT opposed the wage freeze and threatened a general strike. After President Essebsi promised to distribute wage increases from 2017, the UGTT called off the protest and agreed to the deal. UGTT’s secretary general, Noureddine Taboubi, has been quick to condemn the ongoing protests as mere vandalism — rhetoric that aligns with the government’s narrative and strengthens the criminalization of the protests.
The UGTT’s capitulations have opened space for a clearly articulated fight for the revolution’s socioeconomic demands. The Left has filled these gaps with new social movements, the establishment of self-organized communities, and the wholesale rejection of the counterrevolutionary government’s subordination of the working class to the Bretton Woods institutions.
Workers are the protagonists of these social movements, and young people are once again playing a crucial role. According to the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights, over twelve hundred protest movements had started in October 2017. These have taken three primary forms: strikes and blockades, self-organized communities, and social movements opposed to counterrevolutionary legislation.
Fighting the Energy Sector
Resistance to multinational energy corporations has remained constant for the past decade. Though the new Tunisian constitution enshrines state sovereignty over natural resources, these corporations continue to make highly profitable energy grabs, outsource cheap labor, and engage in corruption with impunity. Last year, protests reached another peak with strikes around Tataouine, where both Italy’s ENI and Austria’s OMV have operations.
Workers protested unemployment and the energy sector’s awful working conditions. They called on the government to nationalize at least 20 percent of natural resource revenues. Activists established a protest camp in Kamour and blocked pipelines and access routes. Such acts of civil disobedience had already forced the British company Perenco and Canadian-based Serinus Energy to stop their Tunisian production.
In 2016 alone, protests in the phosphate sector cost the country more than $2 billion. Oil production in Tunisia is lower than in neighboring countries, but it nevertheless reaches forty thousand barrels per day.
The government has met the strikes and blockades with harsh repression, often denouncing the protesters as Islamists. In 2017, it even considered deploying the army to protect foreign companies from the blockades.
Continuous resistance in the energy sector has targeted unemployment, working conditions, the privatization of natural resources, and pollution that has devastated the region and, in places like Kerkennah, diminished the fish stock.
Building New Communities
As Fanon said, for a “colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity.” Socialists in the oasis of Jemna and some surrounding villages are living out his words.
During the French colonial period, Jemna’s farmers grew dates for French export; after independence, the state leased their land to private operators, so farmers worked for them. But two days before Ben Ali’s overthrow, local youth decided to occupy the farms.
The community founded the Association for the Protection of the Oasis of Jemna (APJO). The association is using its revenues to plant new orchards, cover water and electricity bills, maintain the palm trees, and pay the salaries of 133 workers. It has also undertaken development projects: it bought an ambulance and built a permanent structure for the souk, a new sports facility, and new educational institutions. Taxes from merchants go directly to the community.
The association organizes its political decision-making through regular public meetings in the town’s central square. After five years, the oasis community has made more than $700,000.
Since the revolution, sixty thousand hectares of state-owned agricultural land have been occupied in similar examples of self-organization.
Movements Against the Counterrevolution
Social movements are forming to defend the revolution’s principles against the government’s policies. Many youth leaders have decided to leave the leftist parties thanks to their at times stifling party structures, alliances with Nidaa Tounes and the ruling class, and perceived changes in praxis after joining the political establishment. Many of them have found new homes in social movements and campaigns aiming to defend the revolution’s goals.
These horizontally organized groups bring together activists from leftist parties, the UGTT, the student union UGET, and civil society. In the past seven years, the young left has built nationwide networks, developed political trust, and formed more radical positions. Using newly won rights of freedom of expression and the press, the groups have grown more and more confident in directly confronting the government in public discussions and the media.
Manich Msamah (“I do not forgive”) exemplifies these emerging social movements. It launched in 2014 to oppose the reconciliation bill that granted amnesty to bureaucrats who had profited from corruption under Ben Ali. Starting as a social media hashtag, Manich Msamah gathers activists from a broad range of backgrounds, such as student unions, leftist parties, and newly politicized members of civil society.
Since its founding, Manich Msamah has staged dozens of demonstrations with tens of thousands of people, confronted government representatives on state television, and broken into the mainstream with its clear narrative of a betrayed revolution. Manich Msamah successfully rejected several articles of the reconciliation law — though it did pass in September 2017 — and has established a nationwide network of activists with transparent decision-making procedures.
It has developed clear agendas and become an oppositional pole, allowing young activists to strengthen their political skills in direct confrontations with the government. It has also worked closely with other social movements and the UGTT, from whose headquarters it started marches.
These forms of organizing intersect in various ways. Protesters in Kamour carried Manich Msamah signs, while slogans against multinational corporations in Tataouine were shouted at demonstrations against the amnesty law. We see the same unity in today’s protests.
What Are We Waiting For?
The recent protests share the youth movements’ structure. They began under the slogan “Fech Nstenew” (“What Are We Waiting For?”). Members of the Popular Front, UGET, Manich Msamah, Hassibehom (“Hold Them Accountable”), and other social movements called the demonstrations in response to the January 1 finance act.
Besides price increases, a tax hike, and a reduction in public sector employment, Tunisia is also experiencing inflation and deprecation. The Tunisian dinar hit a record low on January 8, trading at 3.011 against the euro.
The Fech Nstenew activists launched a Facebook group, where they published their first official statement on January 3, the anniversary of the 1984 bread riots. They demand a reduction in the prices of basic goods, an end to the privatization of public institutions, free education, social and health care for the unemployed, and welfare and housing for low-income families. The statement further explained:
All the successive governments of Tunisia after 14 January have devoted themselves to the same economic and social choices of the Ben Ali regime, the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer… We are fed up with false promises and can no longer wait. We can no longer live without social welfare, without free access to healthcare, free education and social housing. We can no longer live without hope for change.
The movement quickly spread all over the country, with protests breaking out in all regions. Areas most affected by poverty, such as Sidi Bouzid, have had the largest demonstrations.
The government moved quickly to repress, arresting hundreds and killing one. However, it only discusses the vandalism that occurs overnight, shifting the focus away from the daytime peaceful protests.
Behind the images of smashed cars and burning bins lies something bigger than a spontaneous riot against spontaneous price rises. The protests locate themselves in a tradition of a resistance that has only strengthened since the revolution.
Ines Mahmoud is a political scientist and law graduate based in Tunis. She is editor of mosaik-blog.at and part of the Middle East Forum of Open Democracy.