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'Employment, freedom, dignity': The enduring call of Tunisia's streets Open in fullscreen

Francesca Mannocchi

'Employment, freedom, dignity': The enduring call of Tunisia's streets

Protests erupted around the seventh anniversary of Tunisia's revolution [Anis Mili/AFP]

Date of publication: 30 January, 2018

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The Tunisian people have borne the consequences of the country's dire post-revolution finances, but political and economic concerns cannot always be easily separated, reports Francesca Mannocchi.
It is the afternoon of Friday January 12, and Avenue Bourguiba, in the centre of Tunis, is filled with demonstrators.

Walid Merdassi is one of them. He is unemployed, along with 25 percent of young people in Tunisia (30 percent in poor areas). Walid is part of the Fech Nestanew ["What are we waiting for?"] campaign.

He did not have a real job even under Ben Ali, and makes do with what he can as one of the many who get by thanks to the informal economy; he works as a bricklayer, a waiter, whatever he can. According to Utica, the informal economy, which in not counted as part of the nation's accounts, is worth more than 50 percent of GDP.

For Walid it represents livelihood.

"The poor are becoming miserable," he says. "Oligarchies remain oligarchies." Walid speaks of dignity, of rights "as established by the constitution".

"Yet looking at our pockets this government seems worse than Ben Ali's. The Tunisians are looking for solutions to survive but they are no longer able to do it, we wonder what Tunisia will be tomorrow and we have no answers. And instead of a voice in our defence we face corrupt governments like the one we fought to hunt seven years ago."

Hard times

Is this revolt economic or political? "In 2011 we took to the streets asking for freedom, to conquer freedom of expression. With freedom you get dignity, with dignity you have to get employment," said Walid.

"We can not divide political freedom and economic development, but today we are witnessing rampant poverty and a constant threat to our right to express dissent, through an indiscriminate campaign of arrests."

According to data from the Tunisian Institute of Statistics, the inflation rate reached 6.4 percent in December 2017.

"We will not go back to asking for permission to express our opinions, and today we are taking a step further," he continued. "We want economic and social rights. It is not a new revolution, it is another step in the long journey of the revolution itself. Seven years have passed, seven years of opportunity. The governments have all failed."

January is the month of revolts in Tunisia, it was in 1978 and 1984 (the riots for bread), it was in 2011 and 2016, and now again in 2018.

Tunisia has been rocked by a new revolt [Anadolu]

The International Monetary Fund granted Tunisia a loan of $2.9 billion over four years, in return for austerity policies and a substantial cut in public spending.

When the government of Youssed Chahed, of the secular party Nidaa Tounes, included a rise in VAT in the new financial law - with a consequent increase in the prices of gasoline, gas, sugar and internet access - people took to the streets in cities across the country, from Kasserine, to Tebourba, from Tunis to Djerba.

Today Tunisia faces a deficit that reached $5.8 billion in 2017, in a country where the average monthly salary is 400 dinars - just $167.

According to data from the Tunisian Institute of Statistics, the inflation rate reached 6.4 percent in December 2017. That is, in one year, consumer prices rose by 6.4 percent, with peaks of 8.3 percent for food and beverages, of 20 percent for edible oils and 11.9 percent for fruit.

Dire straits

Economist Clara Capelli argues that, while the new law is intended to shore up public finances, the pain of the austerity measures will be felt most by Tunisia's poor and the middle class.

"Those same people have suffered the most from another unpopular measure - the de facto devaluation of the Tunisian dinar," she said. "The national currency lost about 10 percent of its value against the euro between 2015 and 2016 and over 20 percent between 2016 and 2017, which should have boosted exports - but a country with [Tunisia's] export profile... extremely dependent on imports, [this] has further depressed the purchasing power of Tunisians, and fuelled social frustration."

Imports correspond to almost half of GDP, of which nine percent is food imports and 20 percent is production machinery.

I see the same faces that were in the streets in 2011, many of us are back on the streets

Read also: A Return to Authoritarianism in Tunisia [Part 1]

The frustration is evident on the faces of the demonstrators, on the young faces that have no prospects, and on the more mature faces marked by fatigue.

On Avenue Bourguiba, Mohammed holds a yellow sign, warning of the government's economic policies.

"I see the same faces that were in the streets in 2011, many of us are back on the streets," he shouts. "The revolutionary path is not finished, and it was not finished because the injustices we suffered did not stop. Because women continue to work from eight in the morning until the evening for a hundred dinars a month."

The young people who took to the streets seven years ago to demand radical change - both political and institutional - to fight inequality, economical immobility and repression, are in the streets once again.

For many outside Tunisia, however, the country represents the single success of the Arab Spring.

New political agreements, parliamentary elections and the approval of a new constitution indicate at least a partial success for the revolutionaries.

It has proven less successful in ending the security-focused measures in place since 2015, the year thousands of young people left to fight in Iraq, Syria and Libya, the year militant attacks sparked a state of emergency, the year that brought tourism to its knees.

It was the year during which, under the pretext of the fight against terrorism, Tunisia began to look back to the past by giving its security forces de facto impunity. This undermined the trust of thousands of young people towards institutions.

During the protests of the past few weeks, about 800 people have been arrested as demonstrations were dispersed with violence.

Economic injustices and a return to the security state
drove protesters to the streets [AFP]

"Tunisian security forces must refrain from using excessive force and end their use of intimidatory tactics against peaceful demonstrators," said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

"The Tunisian authorities must prioritise the safety of peaceful protesters and ensure that security forces only use force where absolutely necessary and proportionate, and to protect the rights of others."

In Tebourba, an impoverished suburb 35km from Tunis, 43-year-old Khomsi Ben Sadek Eliferni died during protests.

The government claims that he died of asphyxiation, perhaps due to tear gas, because he had asthma. The protesters who were with him, however, have posted a video online showing a police vehicle passing twice over the man's body.

There is no freedom here, they say that we are in democracy, they fill their mouths with this word, but what kind of democracy are they talking about?

Khmosi's brother, Ibrahim, worked in Italy as a bricklayer for 15 years. He returned to Tebourba because his documents had expired, and he could no longer stay in his adopted home.

"We have nothing to eat, my wife goes to the market and can not fill a bag of vegetables," he said. "My brother worked for 20 dinars a day ($8.30). Between the two of us we hardly put together 300 dinars ($125) a month. Now that he has died, how can I feed us all?

"There is no freedom here, they say that we are in democracy, they fill their mouths with this word, but what kind of democracy are they talking about if when I feel sick I can not go to the hospital, if when you talk to complain they throw you in jail, which kind democracy is this?"

When his brother died during the clashes in Tebourba, Ibrahim says, he did not have even five dinars in his pocket.

"Here in Tunisia only those who were already rich before the revolution still live well. Those who were rich before the revolution remained rich; the poor have become poorer. We're worse than before. Now I think it was better under Ben Ali."


Ibrahim's despair describes the split between the capital and the more marginalised areas of the country, the forgotten areas of the hinterland, the poorer villages, the less developed regions.

The disparity between the coastal cities and the central and southern regions is far from healed and the citizens who live in the interior areas suffer not only from poverty and lack of investment, but also from an intrinsic isolation from political institutions, totally unrepresented in decision-making bodies.

Read also: A Return to Authoritarianism in Tunisia [Part 2]

According to Stefano Torelli of the European Council of Foreign Relations, "the hope and enthusiasm that animated the revolt against the dictatorship has been replaced by disillusionment with democracy".

At least 800 people were arrested
as protests were dispersed [AFP]

In the days around the anniversary of the revolution, the Manich Msamah ["I shall not forgive"] movement also took to the streets.

The group was formed to protest against the law of national reconciliation that provides a de facto amnesty for the senior officials of Ben Ali's government.

The movement consists of mothers of the young people who were killed or injured during the 2011 clashes. Some demonstrate in a wheelchair, some support themselves with crutches because they are missing a leg, amputated seven years ago.

They carry posters with the names of the victims for whom justice remains unknown - either because the perpetrators of their deaths have not been punished, or because the families have not received economic recognition.

Sihem Jaffel is the widow of Taher Merghni, who died on January 13 seven years ago, while demonstrating near their family home.

When her husband died, Sihem was pregnant with their second child. "We understood from the beginning that the court would not recognise our rights," she said.

Among [Ben Ali's] assets seized: buildings, boats and yachts, equity portfolios, bank accounts and at least 662 companies

Marching with her was Saida Slifi, the mother of a young boy who died in Kram.

"My son was 19 when they shot him," she said.

"Just in our suburb ten young boys died and dozens have been injured. Nobody takes care of us. But the blood of our children is no different to the blood of those who govern us or the blood of the policemen - but they continue to be defended, as in the days of Ben Ali, and we are crying for our children who died for the liberty of this country. We do not yet know who are responsible for their deaths."

Saida clutches her son's photo to her chest while crying. "We do not forgive and we will not forgive," she says. "There is no reconciliation possible in this country, they have freed the corrupt who had stolen money from the country under Ben Ali, they have freed the murderers of our children. Where is the memory of our children? Why is their sacrifice worthless?"

The men and women of Manich Msamah cry out for their memory, cry out against the scourge of corruption which is destablising at every political, economic and social level.

Despite the anti-corruption plan launched by the government, which sparked the first arrests, and the announcement by the Minister of Social Affairs Mohamed Trabelsi of a package of urgent measures to fight poverty and help poor families, the feeling in the streets is of growing injustice, social division and, at times, of resignation.

In the aftermath of the Tunisian revolution, the assets of the Ben Ali clan were confiscated - 114 people, including relatives and trustees of the former dictator, were targeted.

Among the assets seized: buildings, boats and yachts, equity portfolios, bank accounts and at least 662 companies. The confiscation commission estimates that the total value of these combined assets is approximately $13 billion, or more than a quarter of the Tunisian GDP in 2011.

"Ben Ali and his family have stolen the past and the future and have left us with corruption," says Saida. "We can not tolerate that these people go unpunished in the country, in the name of a democracy that does not exist. No future is possible for us with these people."

Francesca Mannocchi is a journalist who previously reported from the front lines of the battle for Mosul and on the refugee crisis in Libya.
Follow her on Twitter: @mannochia

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