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Tunisia Explodes…. Again. What a Surprise!

January 18, 2021

The Media, Tunis

The news from Tunisia is of spreading violence, angry demonstrations. As reported at Deutsche Welle (DW)

Unrest spread across Tunisia after the government imposed an anti-virus lockdown amid economic hardship. Many Tunisians are frustrated by the lack of political reforms a decade after the Arab Spring.

Tunisian authorities have arrested more than 600 people after a third consecutive night of riots in several cities throughout the North African country, officials said on Monday. The situation was so explosive that the army deployed troops “in several regions, includign Bizerte, Sousse, Kassserine and Siliana” that is all over the country, although authorities now claim the situation has calmed down some. The protests began on January 14th, exactly ten years to the day, that Ben Ali fled the country.

News of the protests and Tunisia’s stalled revolution brought back the memory of a conversation from those heady, optimistic days of January 2011.

Shortly after the massive 2010 Tunisian demonstrations forced then President Zine Ben Ali and his corrupt cortege from power… I had a discussion with a brother-in-law. I noted that while it was fine and dandy – and it was – that Ben Ali (who has since died) was forced out that if there weren’t far reaching socio-economic changes, that the 2010-11 uprising would result in little more than a face life with a general maintenance of the status quo. My concern/fear was that in the end it would turn into “all the changes necessary to maintain the status quo.”

He commented, wisely, something along the lines… “if the underlying socioeconomic problems plaguing Tunisian society are not dealt with, sometime in the future, the people would rebel again,” – to which I responded, “precisely.”

Nor is this current upsurge of protests, the first time that the country exploded in frustration and social protest over the failure of the new government to even begin to address the socio-economic crisis gripping the country. It has happened several times with increasing violence, including in 2016. I wrote about it then in a two part series that appeared both at Foreign Policy in Focus and at the Tunisian website

The now famous event that triggered the 2010 revolt was the immolation of a young fruit and vegetable salesman, Mohammed Bouazizi in the town of Sidi Bouzid (near Kairoaun), At that time that event gripped the entire nation first in mourning than in what amounted to a national rage. But by 2016 literally overanother 120 disillusioned Tunisians immolated themselves, and this since the start of 2015.

This time, according to the Financial Times, “the explosion of fury was sparked by the alleged mistreatment of a shepherd by a policeman in the northern town of Siliana.”

Yesterday, I was going over – trying to trim down – my file of articles on Tunisia – hundreds of them, a goal in which I did not succeed ver well.

But I did come across another 2016 article that appeared in “Open Democracy” by one Francis Ghiles that appeared just prior to the social explosion in Tunisia that year and gives context to that social explosion. In January 2016,  he wrote, at the time, five years after “the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution” as events in Tunisia were referred to:

This is a country whose government seems unwilling or incapable of conducting desperately needed reforms and whose economy is flat: where living conditions for the majority have deteriorated since they overthrew their erstwhile dictator, Ben Ali, five years ago. Two of the three engines of growth, tourism and the phosphate/fertilizer industry, have stalled and unemployment among the young in Kasserine (town in the interior), one of the towns which revoted in 2011 has increased to nearly 25% among young men and 38% among yhoung women. This is a country where neither major party, the Islamicist Ennahda party that governed from 2012 to 2014 and the lay coalition Nidaa Tounes currently in power, dares to take bold economic decisions. Foreign debt meanwhile is piling up at an alarming rate.

That was then. Today, according to the International Labor Organization, the unemployment rate has soared to what is – frankly – an unimaginable 36.5% with the economy – due to COVID-19 among other factors – shrinking in 2020 by 8%, again a frightening figure.

He goes on to note in that article that “the informal sector” – more commonly known as the black market is rampant, representing more than 50% of Tunisian GDP “thus depriving the government of much needed tax revenue and the formal economy of much needed demand.

All of that described above continues.

Ghiles might have added that as a result of the ongoing crisis that Tunisia was, at the time, bleeding its youth to al Qaeda, ISIS like groups in the tens of thousands, so much so that it now has major problems reintegrating some of these youths back into society as they return home either from capture or simple exhaustion from Syria, Iraq and points further east to where Turkey (and Saudi Arabia) have funneled them.

That was four years ago.

The United States has provided serious aid to Tunisia but the lions share of it is to beef up Tunisia’s military and security apparatus, with just a pittance targeting the socio-economic crisis that triggered this present.

Nothing, not a thing, has improved in the country since then, making the claim that “Tunisia is the only Arab Spring success story” something more of wishful thinking and  not to be taken seriously.

Since the 1980s as World Bank and IMF structural adjustment programs began devastating the economies of the Global South, Tunisia was similarly described as the IMF’s structural adjustment “success story.” Yet it was precisely those policies that led to the 2010-2011 government collapse. These policies have continued unabated  with a similar failure rate since then.

And now in 2021, some 5 years after Ghiles wrote his “Something is rotten in the state of Tunisia” piece, the much repeated mantra claiming Tunisia “the only  Arab Spring success story” rings even more hollow than it did earlier. The only difference between Tunisia in 2009 and today is that Tunisians can now openly complain about their fate in the media – within certain well defined boundaries by the way – and they can criticize their government  and watch as the country’s socio-economic environment turns even more rotten than before.

What is Tunisia’s prescription to this socio-economic tightening, more IMF loans in exchange for tighter, structural adjustment programs (another one coming this year) with tighter restrictions.

Fine success! And a chilling reminder of the dangers of the fire next time.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. William Conklin permalink
    January 18, 2021 10:28 pm

    Interesting, this might describe United States in 2021.

  2. Francis S Cheever permalink
    January 19, 2021 7:19 am

    So ironic after the recent Coca Cola advertisements featuring Tuniisia as a happy, progressive place to live.

  3. Philip Jones permalink
    January 19, 2021 10:47 am

    Tunisia doesn’t have many natural resources: some oil, some phosphates, some olive groves. It also has tourist attractions, mainly low-cost hotels at a number of beaches. Yet as the population increases, the country doesn’t have much of excess of anything and is in danger of running out of sufficient fresh water. So I’m not sure what economic gains for the entire population reforms could accomplish. I suspect reforms would not mean sharing the wealth but, rather, making the few who do have some wealth share the poverty of the masses. Is that an improvement? On the other hand, I think reforms that could rein in the heavy handed police. That could be a net gain for a lot of people, particularly the young. But that doesn’t really change the limited wealth available to the entire population of 12 million.

    • January 19, 2021 11:09 am

      Interesting comments… The reforms in the direction you are suggesting are not what I have in mind. As for the specifics while I have my own ideas – these must come from the Tunisian people themselves.. Withoutgoing into useless details – and they would be useless – I see a long term improvement in Tunisia’s future linking up economically with its much richer neighbors to the east and to the west, in combination there could be a kind of socio-economic dynamism that would benefit all. Not in the cards now, nor, from what I can tell, in near beyond.. Still the current models is a mess. They keep repeating the same mistakes with the same results. It has gotten them nowhere and has all the signs of continuing…

      • Philip Jones permalink
        January 19, 2021 11:54 am

        I agree. If Tunisia could link up with neighbors, that could really alter the equation. In the past Tunisia has been all for joining Algeria and Morocco to form one big market, but Algeria and Morocco won’t cooperate. These days Libya is such a mess that I don’t know if Tunisia wants to join it in any fashion.

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