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An Outsider’s Look at the January 18, 2018 Protests in Tunisia

January 20, 2018


An Outsider’s Look at the January 18, 2018 Protests in Tunisia The link takes readers to five commentaries at on the Tunisian protests. Below is my contribution somewhat more elaborated.

They’ve been sitting in cafes for seven years, maybe more.

As the news of the protest movement made its way into the media (to follow in far off Colorado), a vivid memory of Tunisia in 2011 came to mind. It was almost a year after the widespread revolt of initiating “the Arab Spring” which swept Zine Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and their two completely corrupted extended family clans from power. Young men are sitting in a Tunis café in a not very prosperous neighborhood. They arrive in the morning as soon as the café closes; many stay all day, till late in the evening when the café closes, playing cards, talking. Day after day, all day. The coffee is subsidized, the government fearing what might happen if coffee was unaffordable.

They are in their great majority unemployed, bored, angry.

It is from their ranks that the thousands of Tunisians were/are recruited as cannon fodder for ISIS and like organizations. It is they who were the backbone of the movement to overthrow Ben Ali. Seven years on, they still there until their anger explodes again about this time of year to remind the government it is they who are among the key agents of social change and virtually nothing has happened these past years since January 14, 2011 to suggest that their situation has changed.

A wave of angry demonstrations in Tunisia has just culminated on January 14 in nationwide demonstrations. Ignited in opposition to a harsh new budget which pushes up the prices of necessities, forced on the country in exchange for major International Monetary Fund loans, the protests have resulted in at least one death and – at least as has been officially reported – some 800 arrests. It was a typical structural adjustment austerity program in exchange for the loans. targeted the new state budget for 2018, a budget passed last month (December, 2017) that had garnered the support of the Tunisian trade union federation, the Union Générale Tunisiene de Travail (UGTT), caught in dilemma, trying to moderate awful deal but ending up with something hardly better.

Tunisians demonstrating January, 2018

Tunisia: A History of Bread Riots

And the typical IMF structural adjustment program – as in the past, repeatedly – was greeted by the fine people of Tunisia with nationwide protests, these going back to the 1984 so-called “bread riots,” – when in exchange for an earlier IMF structural adjustment program, the Tunisian government of the time tried to raise the price of basic commodities, among them the flour that goes into making bread.

In those riots – which were happening all over the Third World at the time in response to similar IMF loan programs – 200 demonstrators were killed. The then president – Habib Bourguiba – had the good sense to pull out of the agreement at the time. Having been through this before, the current Tunisian government responded to the protests by announcing a series of reforms that include free medical aid for unemployed youth, increased state pensions, increased financial assistance to poor families and the establishment of a housing As a CNN report noted though, “While the reforms address concerns of the poor, they do not effectively change the 2018 budget legislation which many had protested against.

Two years later when Bourguiba was unceremoniously removed, one of the first acts of his successor, Zine Ben Ali, was to reopen negotiations with the IMF. Although there have been some suggestions that the IMF might have learned to alter loan conditions from nearly forty years of structural adjustment austerity program failures, there is no indication – none whatsoever – that the current loan to Tunisia is any different that hundreds of punitive loans made to MENA countries in the past, nor that it has in any way, eased the socio-economic crisis long facing the country.

In 2016, the IMF authorized a $2.9 billion loan to Tunisia to be distributed over a four-year period with the stated goal “to strengthen job creation and economic growth,” “ to support the authorities’ economic agenda aimed at promoting more inclusive growth and job creation, while protecting the most vulnerable households,”- as the IMF article on the loan states. To date, the loans have accomplished – nor even begun to accomplish – none of the above.

protests in Redeyef (near Gafsa) which triggered the 2010-2011 uprising that brought down Ben Ali

Vision Lacking from Political Leadership

Beyond the limits of the current austerity program – unlikely to have any more positive results than the past ones – there is another nagging problem with the Tunisian situation which has characterized the political situation of the country since Ben Ali and Trabelsi fled the country: the lack of an economic vision for the country’s future – either in the medium or long-term. Such a vision wasn’t provided by the Ennahdha Party, despite its still sizeable popular base, concerned as it was far more with strengthening the religious dimension of Tunisian life than addressing the socio-economic crisis for which it had – and continues to have – no ideas. Nor has it been provided by the factionalized Nida Tounes with its recycled members of the Ben Ali business community and government bureaucrats.

Without such vision and programs, “more of the same” can be expected – IMF loans to keep the country from total collapse perhaps but that in the end go nowhere, as a result, no fundamental changes of the economic model, more polarization, uprisings like the current one, until “something” gives one way or another. All this in a country that has the human talent – intellectual, technical and financial to guide the country out of the morass in which it finds itself, but those in power, domestically and abroad have turned a deaf ear to the country’s ample natural talent.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. kerim permalink
    January 27, 2018 3:40 am

    Rob, thank you for shedding some light from your ”outsider’s look” on the Tunisian spring, and its factual impact, particularly among unemployed youth, and also the role of the IMF, regarding the endless austerity measures Tunisians have to endure, in order for the Government to get loans, and be able to repay them, according to IMF-rules, naturally .

    The first question that one might ask is, why does this Government keep on borrowing money? The national debt is somewhere around 12 billion Dinar, which is alarmimgly high in comparison to the average year budget .
    It would mean that the Government has only one option, and that’s to introduce new taxes, to lift prices, and to cut government spending, but things will only get worse . Right now, the treasury is literally empty, with barely one billion Dinar in its reserve . To make things worse, the Dinar is in a free fall, and today you get a little less than 30 cents ( Euro-cents), for one Dinar . In other words, a 10-Euro-bill buys you 30 Dinars . (In Bourguiba’s time, the Dinar was $2 worth . )
    The second question is, where did all these recently borrowed billions go ?
    They will tell you, it went to salaries. No wonder, with that huge Government work force in place . Instead of limiting the number of Ministries, Youssef Chahed chooses the most complicated structure, so we’re now dealing with some 40 ministries & State Secretariats, combined .
    The IMF spokesman was right when he said, last week, that Tunisian successive Governments, have always spent 50 percent of the annual Budget, on salaries only . In doing so, Tunisia is considered to be world’s number one country that spends so much on salaries .
    I think that cutting these Government Institutions down to size, will provide the treasury at least 5 Billion DT on an annual basis . If the port of Rades can be efficiently run, it will also deliver at least another 10 Billion . Last but not least, the introduction of an entry- visa fee, for every visitor, including mass tourism groups . This will add another 3 to 4 Billion to the treasury . Just to name these three possibilities, that should enable Tunisia to stop borrowing, and learn how to dig deeper and find other means, to generate steady durable income . Relying on cheap mass tourism, olive oil, palm fruit, alone, cannot be sufficient . For that matter, it had never been .
    Then you wonder indeed, if there is any clear political vision anywhere to be found, among this icy political elite of ours, unable so far, to be in tune with the People’s aspirations . Ironically, we have some 200+ legally registered political parties, in this country . Government subsidized, obviously . But when it comes to Politics and to State Management, Quality is rather badly needed, not Quantity .
    Nonetheless, I don’t think Chahed is the right man for this job . He might be in the Agriculture Department, and becomes useful in his own domain, but he lacks dynamism, he’s not articulate enough, he looks uncertain, specially when he met with Congress members in Washington, a few months ago . Essebsi is to blame for appointing him as Head of Government, at the expense of Habib Essid who had to make way, without any clear motive, and peculiar enough with the approval of the Parliament . Lobbying makes the job done .

    I’ll be crossing my fingers that malicious Lobbies won’t infiltrate, and contaminate the upcoming municipal elections . There are signs that they might just do that, which will reshape the situation from bad, to snafu, I fear .

    • January 27, 2018 2:35 pm

      Hello Kerim. as usual, greatly appreciate your comments and think that your ideas are worthy of serious consideration..

      Will come back to some of your comments below but for starterss, I was thinking about the IMF/WB loans. My sense is the purpose – as much for strategic as economic reasons that the goal of these loans is to keep the government from collapsing economically while never really doing anything to change the model in a way that would lead to growth. For the U.S. the reasons are strategic, for France and Italy (the countries that receive a majority of Tunisian exports, economic. The economic issues are not important to the U.S.; trade with and from Tunisia is a rather low levels and will remain so. Strategically, the U.S. needs what it considers a stable base for communications activities in the Mediterranean and North Africa. Any even cursory look at the U.S. embassy outside of Tunis one sees an array of all kinds of fancy radar, communication stuff. Tunisia is for Washington what is referred to as “a lily pad” (another one is Jordan)…Washington does not want its lilypad to implode and so it offers aid – and I believe will continue to. Not enough to make much of a difference but enough to keep Tunisia limping along with high levels of social unrest but levels that Washington considers “manageable.” As for France and Italy, the last thing they would want to see is any change in Tunisia as a source of cheap manufactures and food stuffs to their countries. If Tunisia began producing more higher end products (say textiles) these would compete with European manufacturers and that is a no-no. So from an economic viewpoint Europe too – France and Italy especially – don’t want to see any qualitative change in the Tunisian economic model. It suits them fine…and so for perhaps different reasons than Washington, Tunisia’s two main European partners share a similar strategy – let Tunisia limp along, but not collapse (if they can help it).

      There is more but that is enough. As usual, appreciate your thoughtful remarks and wish that these ideas were implemented in Tunisia…

  2. kerim permalink
    January 29, 2018 6:29 am


    No question about the fact that loans are necessary, to keep the Economic “Engin” running, as it were – albeit in a slow pace – and to substitute for the fairly, fairly low economic growth, ever since Essebsi took office . Zero to less-than-one-percent growth, with all that borrowed money .
    In reality, the post election Government has doubled the existing national debt, in just two years time . Never witnessed before .
    There is clearly a distinctive lack of big ideas, for big projects, and relief plans for the forgotten interior regions, and a bunch of other mandatory priorities that the Government ought to come up with, fast . None of that is happening, but, to keep asking for more loans, and adding more national debt, is no solution at all .
    It’s not the fault of the IMF, nor the WB . These bankers do not force anybody to take loans, unless someone knocks on their door, and says help me out, I’m stuck . They’d say : ‘sure . Just sign here . Accept the terms and conditions, and the money be wired to you . Nice doing business with you‘ .
    Therefore it is our own fault, as a country, and no one else .
    You’re definitely right, when you mention France and Italy, for their influences upon the course of events that happen in Tunisia, but mainly concerning economic exchange issues, like contracts, prices, hotel-arrangements for mass tourism, and so on .
    I would recommend to include the UAE, for its sneaky role, in trying to cause chaos, and to create division in the Tunisian political scene . The UAE is out to get Ennahdha . That’s the main target . However, it is unclear what does this tiny far away country want from us ? One of its failed tricks, was to promptly have decided to prohibit all Tunisian females, from boarding UAE planes, and it applied even to transit flights . No plausible reasons were given, behind this somewhat uncalled for action . Just to show how determined the UAE is, to inflict collective punishments on us, when suitable, yet Dubai is at a distance of around 4,000 miles, in the middle of the Persian golf, facing Iran from north east to north west, and at a stone throw from Afghan & Pakistani borders .
    Ennahdha may be friends with Qatar and may not be in favour of a war against Iran, but the whole world is not in favour of any war with Iran, if that’s the UAE main concern . Those who want Iran to go down on its knees, are just a few, 4 or 5 . The UAE, the KSA, Bahrain, Israel and Trump (Not the USA) . Fools if they think Iran is a walkover, and these guys are behaving like kids, eager and excited to enjoy a firework show, around the corner .
    We’ll have to admit that Ennahdha, as a coalition Party, had sidelined itself, and is still playing dead . Nidaa determines the agenda, rules and decides . Ennahdha nods in approval . Ghannouchi has nothing more to say, as if he’s having a burnout . Or perhaps, waiting for better times, that might never come, because Ennahdha mp’s voted YES, and allowed former RCD members to take part in governing the country and, becoming gradually a major player in the decision making, after forgiving them their sins, without trial .

    Not only does Ennahdha exercise “passive Politics”, but it has no idea where the ship is going, and whether it is wise to make alliance, with folks that have butter on their chin . Enough butter, you can see it from miles ! I predict that Ennahdha will lose for good, a significant portion of its electoral base, and will end up in the opposition, as soon as Essebsi retires .
    The local elections will determine the shape of things to come, if and only if, no manipulations take place, although it remains to be seen .

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