Tunisia marks anniversary of revolution as it grapples with socio-economic woes

“I will work… to honour your demands,” Tunisian President Kais Saied told a crowd in Sidi Bouzid.
Sunday 22/12/2019
Tunisian President Kais Saied speaks to a crowd in Sidi Bouzid, December 17. (Tunisian Presidency Press Service via AFP)
Tunisian President Kais Saied speaks to a crowd in Sidi Bouzid, December 17. (Tunisian Presidency Press Service via AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisia on December 17 commemorated the start of the uprising that toppled President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, with recently elected Tunisian President Kais Saied vowing to “honour the demands of the revolution.”

Saied, an academic with no prior political experience, recorded a landslide election victory in October. He has made few public statements since taking office.

However, he made an unannounced visit to Sidi Bouzid, where the first protests of Tunisia’s uprising erupted, and promised to realise the key demands of the revolution — freedom, work and dignity — within the “framework of the constitution and within legitimacy.”

“I will work… to honour your demands,” he told a crowd in Sidi Bouzid.

Though Saied spoke of the political will to resolve many of the country’s problems and meet the demands of the people, he did not present programmes to achieve the goal. He promised to return to the region “when funds are allocated for development programmes.”

Tunisians expressed their frustration with promises, demanding action to save the country from economic collapse. The despair was noted during parliamentary and presidential election campaigns this year, with voters pushing for change and attempting to create a new political reality.

A recent poll by Sigma Conseil said more than 80% of Tunisian respondents said the country was “going in the wrong direction.” It showed, however, the president to be the most trusted public figure.

Saied announced in Sidi Bouzid that December 17 would be a national holiday. Tunisia already marks January 14, the date Ben Ali was deposed, as a holiday.

Ben Ali died in September in Saudi Arabia at the age of 83.

Protests broke out December 17, 2010, after street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire to protest police harassment. Since then, the Sidi Bouzid region has experienced further unrest fuelled by unemployment and poverty.

In December, protests broke out in the region after the death of a 25-year-old man who set himself on fire in the impoverished town of Jelma in desperation over his economic situation.

While Tunisia has been praised as a model of democratic transition, wealth and control of the economy remain concentrated in the hands of a small group against a background of regional imbalances, slow economic growth and a large informal sector.

Deteriorating living standards and rising prices are causing increasing atrophy of the middle class. The country is grappling with an inflation rate of more than 6% and the unemployment rate stands at more than 15%, with nearly double that rate among youth and women.

The country’s government has been in limbo since October’s legislative elections as Prime Minister-designate Habib Jemli struggled to put together a coalition government that could win parliamentary approval.