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From The Socialist newspaper, 27 January 2016

'Arab Spring' five years on

New wave of protests in Tunisia

Protest against terrorism in Tunisia, photo by Magharebia (Creative Commons)

Protest against terrorism in Tunisia, photo by Magharebia (Creative Commons)   (Click to enlarge)

Al-Badil al-Ishtiraki (Socialist Alternative), CWI in Tunisia

Five years after the fall of the dictator Ben Ali, the demands of the revolution remain unsatisfied. And in recent days Tunisia has been swept by a new 'intifada' (uprising) from its impoverished youth, fed up with a life of misery and mass unemployment. This is increasingly taking the character of a national revolt.

The protests started with a strikingly similar episode to the one which sparked the first flames of the so-called 'Arab Spring' five years ago: a young job-seeker, Ridha Yahyaoui, committed suicide after he was taken off a recruitment list for the local public administration in the city of Kasserine - notorious for its abysmal levels of poverty and unemployment, higher than anywhere else in the country.

Jobs

Even though the suicide of Ridha has been widely reported, his case is far from isolated. The lack of jobs today is more dire than under the old regime. According to a recent report by the OECD (an organisation representing mostly advanced capitalist countries), 62% of Tunisian graduates are without work.

The informal economy is, for many, a desperate outlet to try and survive. For unlicensed traders trying to put food on the table, life remains synonymous with almost daily police raids and the constant fear of being arrested or having one's goods confiscated.

The feeling that nothing has changed since the revolution is widespread in Tunisia, particularly in marginalised interior regions like Kasserine. There, the lack of infrastructure and investment is staggering, while the rates of unemployment and illiteracy are double those in coastal areas. People are tired of broken promises, political neglect and widening poverty.

As the first youth were coming onto the streets of Kasserine demanding jobs and development following Yayahoui's death, the regime deployed its favoured weapon to deal with this kind of situation; state repression.

Throughout 2015, repression has been the response provided by the government to the economic grievances of the poor and working class communities. The fight against terrorism has notably given a cheap excuse for stepping up arbitrary violence against social movements.

Hence the police were promptly sent into Kasserine's neighbourhoods to try and extinguish the fire. At the same time, the government decided to sack the first delegate of the governorate of Kasserine, in the hope of calming the situation down, but to no avail.

Crackdown

The state crackdown provoked the opposite effect to what the authorities intended - enraging protesters further, and provoking a wave of sympathy for their demands in other parts of the country.

A curfew imposed (which has now been extended to the entire Tunisian territory) to 'avoid any escalation', was ignored by protesters who stayed out on the streets overnight. And escalation is exactly what the government got.

Firstly, the youth of neighbouring towns in the governorate stepped in; then, demonstrations broke out in various other parts of the country, notably due to calls made by the UDC (Union of Unemployed Graduates) and the student union, UGET.

"Jobs or another revolution," young protesters chanted in Sidi Bouzid. Slogans and demands reminiscent of the revolution, such as 'work, freedom, dignity', have been revived as the movement transforms into a broader political rejection of the government.

A series of factors have contributed to the present situation. One of them is undoubtedly the perception that the government, behind its façade of strength and police brutality, is increasingly weak and divided.

The ruling party, Nidaa Tounes - a new instrument for many old regime cronies and corrupt businessmen - suffered a major split at the beginning of the year forcing a ministerial reshuffle. It has now a smaller number of seats in the Parliament than its main coalition partner, the right-wing Islamist party, Ennahda.

Capitalism

Like all post-Ben Ali governments, the government of Habib Essid has not only failed to deliver on the demands of the revolution, it has consciously continued to implement the same old neo-liberal economic recipes that have inflicted misery on millions of working class and middle class families across the country.

While austerity and cuts in state subsidies have been on the menu for the majority, 70 Tunisian billionaires have a fortune equivalent to 37 times the national state budget!

Seizing these assets and nationalising the main industries and banks would undoubtedly provide the state with a huge financial tap to massively invest in infrastructure and public and social services.

A mass programme of public works, funded by such measures, could create socially useful jobs for hundreds of thousands of the unemployed, and could rapidly put regional disparities into the dustbin of history.

But this kind of measure would require a dramatic shift in political priorities and a government ready to take on the vested interests of big business.

It needs a government made up of representatives of workers and poor, plainly dedicated to satisfying the revolution's demands - in the same way as the present government is dedicated to perpetuate the rule of the capitalist elite and implement the dictates of imperialist powers and their financial institutions.

This article can be read in full on www.socialistworld.net

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In The Socialist 27 January 2016:


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