In Tunisia, a serious warning from the unemployed
Tunis - The worst riots in Tunisia in five years, sparked by unemployment and unfulfilled promises of social justice and regional equality, left one policeman dead and dozens more injured in mid- January and brought back concerns about the country’s ability to keep its fledgling democracy alive.
If the unrest — sparked by the death of a young unemployed man in the poor central town of Kasserine — bore similarities to the public anger triggered during the Tunisian 2010-11 uprising by the self-immolation of a street vendor, it is because most of the socio-economic problems that led to the overthrow of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali then remain largely unaddressed.
Riots erupted when Ridha Yahyaoui, a 28-year-old jobless man, was electrocuted after he climbed a utility pole to protest the removal of his name from a list of public sector recruits.
Residents of central and western regions of Tunisia have often complained of neglect and lack of opportunity compared to richer coastal towns, including the capital Tunis, from where most prominent Tunisian leaders hail.
The death of peddler Mohamed Bouazizi, 24, in December 2010 temporarily bridged the regional divide, bringing together people in the developed coast and the mainly farming interior in a pro-democracy uprising. That spirit, however, faded as the attention of the political elite shifted away from the socio-economic roots of discontent.
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi warned in an address on January 22nd that Tunisia’s stability and security were being targeted by forces bent on derailing democracy. He blamed elements affiliated with “recognised” and “non-recognised” political parties as well as the Islamic State (ISIS) in neighbouring Libya for trying to take advantage of the tensions.
“We want to tell everyone that Tunisia is resilient and strong,” added Caid Essebsi promising that the government will spare no effort to provide jobs, within its budget capabilities.
As Caid Essebsi was speaking, demonstrators were clashing with security forces in Ettadhamen district, a working-class area and a radical Islamist stronghold.
Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid has said the “government has no magic wand to end the joblessness crisis overnight” but promised the creation of thousands of jobs and the launch of job-creation schemes in the poorest regions. “Solutions exist but some patience and optimism are needed,” he said.
Tunisia’s joblessness rate soared from about 12% in 2010 to 15.7% in 2015, with rates of more than 20% in southern and western parts of the country. The rate of unemployment among university graduates topped the 30% mark and is one of the highest in the world.
Caid Essebsi sought to ease concerns abroad about the stability of the young democracy, saying: “Tunisia is in good shape and is pursuing its democratic course.”
While Tunisia is hailed as a rare success of the “Arab spring”, authorities have failed to resolve the problems of youth unemployment, social exclusion and regional inequalities.
“The politicians are busy talking about democracy and the new constitution and so on. We the people in the lower rung have seen nothing. The talks are destined for us and the benefits for themselves,” complained Salem Touborski, who has been unemployed for five years despite having a university degree in sociology.
Tunisia’s news website Assabah News Editor-in-Chief Hafedh Ghribi said the narrow interests of the ruling elite have distracted leaders from seeing protests brewing.
“The ruling leaders were fighting over the spoils of power until the earth shook under their feet as they did not make good use of the time,” he said. “People could not bear the sight of politicians getting fat, smugglers getting richer and terrorism wrecking the country’s economy and security.”
“Tunisian society is shattered between north and south and between east and west and between youths and the elites who are far from understanding the reality,” said Hatem Ben Salem, head of the presidency-run Strategic Studies Institute.
“More than 90% of the youth did not vote, which means they do not believe in the priorities set by the politicians, their parties and successive governments which are supposed to come to achieve the goals of the youth’s revolution which are freedom, dignity and social justice.”
Few believe, however, that a new revolution is about to be spawned as the protests were largely leaderless and poorly organised.
Security forces were careful not to repeat the mistakes of 2011 regarding the use of force. Political leaders and social media activists denounced the looting and violence even if they sided with “the legitimate demands” of the unemployed.
The West is supportive although not providing the massive help some Tunisians were expecting after 2011. On January 22nd, Tunisia pledged $1.1 billion in development aid to Tunisia over the next five years after Habib Essid met French President François Hollande. The support “aims to help poor regions and young people, putting the focus on employment”, Hollande’s office said.
There is still concern today about the vulnerability of Tunisia’s democratic experiment as the country sees no way out yet of its socio-economic dilemmas and complex security concerns.