Tunisia: explosion of protests against government austerity

Tunisians defied the repressive forces of the state to overthrow the dictator, president  Ben Ali

Tunisians defied the repressive forces of the state to overthrow the dictator, president Ben Ali   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Hundreds detained in indiscriminate arrests

A demonstration marking the seventh anniversary of the mass uprising in Tunisia which overthrew the Ben Ali dictatorship, and propelled the Arab Spring revolutions, took place in the capital, Tunis, on 14 January.

This came after a week of ongoing protests against the government’s latest austerity measures. In an attempt to defuse the movement the coalition government has offered some token concessions on living standards.

Serge Jordan, CWI, and members of Al-Badil al-Ishtiraki, Socialist Alternative (CWI in Tunisia) had earlier reported on the fresh outbreak of protests which in a shortened version is reprinted here.

The explosion of protests that broke out on 7 January against the new Finance Act 2018 – a battery of measures against the working and middle classes – has again put into perspective the liberal commentators’ fairytale about Tunisia’s ‘successful democratic transition’.

In reality, the country has remained an open battleground between the forces of revolution and counterrevolution ever since the mass uprising in 2010-11 which ousted Tunisia’s longtime dictator, President Zine el Abedine Ben Ali.

Having initially responded to a campaign launched by social media activists (#Fech_Nestannew or “What are we waiting for?”), people are venting their long-simmered rage against their worsening living conditions.

Social protests have erupted in numerous parts of the country, along with riots and violent street battles between young people and the police, especially in the marginalised inland regions and in working class suburbs of Tunis and other cities.


The state has replied to the movement with force, arresting hundreds of people, including the pre-emptive hunt for activists who issued statements or wrote slogans calling for the protests.

The 2018 budget voted through by the governing coalition on 9 December includes a series of bitter pills to swallow for the poor, in particular the increase in VAT, the implementation of a new social security contribution, and new customs duties on imported products.

Tunisian households will spend up to 300 dinars (£90) more on average every month as a result of these measures.

This huge assault on working class people has been concocted with tight supervision and applause from the International Monetary Fund, which is exerting intense pressure to speed-up the pace of so-called “structural reforms”, aimed at financing the repayment of the public debt to financial speculators.

Contrary to a widespread myth, this debt has nothing to do with the “high volume of wages” of public sector workers, but is a poisoned gift from the mafia who was in power before the revolution. Tunisian people have never seen a penny of that money.

The state of emergency, constantly renewed since November 2015, is used to clamp down on democratic rights, while last year the militarisation of certain production sites was decreed by the government in reaction to social movements in the south of the country.

Trump and other western imperialist leaders, while hypocritically embracing the recent protests in Iran, have remained absolutely silent on the Tunisian protests.

Wealth gap

The grotesque wealth gap, at the heart of the revolutionary uprising against the Ben Ali regime seven years ago, has only expanded since.

Tunisia is pinpointed even by the corporate EU for being a “tax heaven” for the super-rich, while prices of basic staples, especially food, are breaking records, a phenomenon heightened by market speculation and by the organised dismantlement of the subsidy system by successive governments.

The trade deficit has tripled in seven years, driving down the value of the Tunisian dinar, bringing up the cost of debt service payments and crushing the living standards of ordinary people.

The situation in the poorer, inland regions is particularly volatile, as local communities have seen no change or any meaningful public investment.

Many young people have the feeling they bartered their blood in 2010-11 for even more misery and unemployment.

Any spark can light the prairie fire, as shown by the example of Sejnane, a locality which witnessed two general strikes in less than a month at the end of 2017, in protest at joblessness, poverty and the deterioration of public services.

That movement was triggered by the self-immolation of a mother of five in front of the building of the local authorities, a tragic episode reminiscent of the act which sparked the so-called Arab Spring in December 2010.

The last six years have registered an average economic growth of less than 1% – hence the capitalists won’t give substantial concessions to workers and the poor, which could provide their remodelled political system with a sustainable social base of support.

Reflecting this, nine governments have succeeded each other in less than seven years. All have teetered, some fallen, on social explosions from below. It will be no different with the current regime.

The so-called national unity government of Youssef Chahed is composed of four parties, with the leading roles played by Nidaa Tounes (essentially a recycled machine derived from Ben Ali’s now dissolved RCD) and Ennahda (the right-wing Islamist party which ruled the country until 2013). Both are facing internal crisis and have suffered splits.

Nidaa Tounes is also the party of the president of the republic Caid Essebsi, and is ruled by his son Hafedh.

The latter is the most hated figure in Tunisia, while the leader of Ennahda, Rached Ghannouchi, comes second on that list. Projections say around 70% people will abstain in the coming municipal elections.

Last year, the government tried to cut across its growing discredit by starting a vocally promoted ‘anti-corruption campaign’. Corruption is even more widespread than it used to be under Ben Ali.

Once tightly controlled and centralised by the ex-dictator’s inner circles, it has now flourished all over the place.

Disgracefully, the central leaders of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) have exhibited a very cooperative attitude with the government on its austerity plans – although the recent movement forced them to take some rhetorical distance.

All through 2017, the mainstream press has been full of praise for the general secretary Noureddine Taboubi, as his election at the head of the trade union federation has marked a turn towards more explicit forms of class collaboration.

Having acted like ‘social advisers’ of the current neoliberal cabinet; having done nothing to prepare the struggle against the latter’s social war on the workers and poor, the central leaders of the UGTT bureau are now struggling to pretend to be on the side of the oppressed.

The union leaders are raising eyebrows about the acts of violence and looting. However, the responsibility for these developments also lies in the hands of these same trade union leaders.

Many poor and alienated young people are indeed lured into the blind alley of desperate actions because these “leaders” have deserted their job, taking no serious initiative whatsoever to lead a determined battle against the intolerable social conditions experienced by the youth.

If these leaders are not ready to take serious action to broaden and strengthen the current movement, they should be replaced by people who are.

The need to build a powerful strike movement against the Finance Act has to be firmly put on the agenda in every branch of the UGTT across the country.

After all, it is the organised deployment of the power of the working class that sealed the fate of Ben Ali seven years ago – it is the same power that will defeat all those who try to carry on with the old regime’s economic policies.

The leaders of the left coalition ‘Popular Front’ correctly call for stepping up the mobilisations. But their parallel call for “snap elections” falls short of what is required now.

Of course, we are not in principle against elections that would see an early end to the current administration.

But launching such an idea in the height of the struggle betrays the Popular Front leaders’ habitual concerns to divert the outcome of grassroots social battles into the safe channels of institutional politics.

In 2013, these leaders squandered two marvellous revolutionary opportunities with a similar strategy.

United front

A strong united front of struggle – bringing together Fech Nestannew campaigners, workers and trade unions, unemployed organisations and local communities, political and social activists – needs to be organised and escalated until the vile Finance Act is scrapped; along with its creator, the Chahed government.

But as amply demonstrated by the experience of the last seven years, unless the movement builds its own independent political voice based on the demands of the revolution, the capitalist ruling classes will continuously put together governmental teams that suit their interests and crush people’s aspirations.

To prevent this happening over again, mass action committees should be set up in the workplaces and communities to build the movement from the bottom up, to coordinate a mass political struggle aimed at bringing down the government, and to prepare the modelling of a revolutionary people’s government based on democratically elected representatives from workers, poor peasants and young people.

With democratic socialist policies, based on the public ownership of banks, factories, major land holdings and utilities, a radically different future could be built for the majority.