Since mid-January, several Tunisian cities have witnessed violent clashes between security forces and groups of young people who took part in night demonstrations and acts of vandalism and looting of both private and public property. Although the country saw similar events over the last decade, the level of violence that has characterized the recent protests and the absence of any political or social leadership raise many questions about the context and prospects of these demonstrations as well as their connection to the political and social crises sweeping the country.
Context and Geography of Protests
Since the 1970s, December and January have been particularly symbolic months for protest movements in Tunisia. On January 26, 1978, a general strike organized by the Tunisian General Labor Union turned into bloody clashes and resulted in the death and injury of hundreds of Tunisians at the hands of police. On January 3, 1984, demonstrations swept across the country against the doubling of food prices, resulting in another police crackdown that also killed and maimed hundreds of citizens. Between December 17, 2010 and January 14, 2011, popular protests turned into a revolution that toppled the regime of former President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. In the decade following the revolution, a number of protests took place against continuing poor social and living conditions.
Usually, the end of the fiscal year and the beginning of another are a trigger for protests because they coincide with the approval of the state’s general budget, and the unpopular choices that normally accompany it, such as increasing taxes and the prices of certain consumer goods. They also coincide with a decrease in the funds directed to creating job opportunities, social welfare, education, health services, and infrastructure. Recent events have been accompanied by worsening economic indicators as a result of the declining growth rate (-6 percent) and chronic high unemployment (16.2 percent),1 a decline in the exchange rate,2 a high cost of living, and a low quality of health and educational services. Although the Tunisian economy has been suffering accumulated structural problems for decades, the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated these deficits given the slowed pace of production, higher prices, sudden unemployment for huge groups, and the depletion of public finances in the acquisition of emergency health supplies and the disbursement of social welfare.
The latest most violent clashes have centered on the security forces and groups of youths, with private and public property being targeted in the western suburbs of Tunis, while Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid, Kairouan, Sousse, and Bizerte have seen sporadic skirmishes. Other states have remained relatively calm. During the five days of confrontations, the Ettadhamon district was a frontline; it is an area that was formed decades ago from waves of internal migration, most of which came from poor areas in the northwest to the capital in search of job opportunities. Located in the western belt of the capital among the largest and densely populated areas in the country, with a population of more than 200,000 people concentrated in a small area, Ettadhamon was one of the first areas of the capital to rise up during the Arab Spring revolution ten years ago.3
The living conditions in most other areas that saw skirmishes between the security forces and the demonstrators during recent events are not much different from the situation in Ettadhamon, as development projects in states such as Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid, and Kairouan have ground to a halt, unemployment rose, and infrastructure and service facilities faltered. Although a decade has passed since the revolution, development policies that have deepened crises in the suburbs for decades have not been reconsidered. And unlike the states of the interior and the capital suburbs, which have seen continual protests throughout the past decade, recent events have spilled into the governorate of Sousse. This is the first time that the coastal city has witnessed clashes, looting, and vandalism of this level. It seems that the repercussions of the pandemic on the tourism and services sectors and the new unemployment of so many of the youth have collided to bring social tensions to a breaking point.
Competing Interpretations of the Protests
Despite continual protests in Tunisia during the last decade, especially in December and January, the recent events were marked by an exceptional level of violence, as protesters blocked roads with burning tires and looted shopping centers and post offices. They engaged in violent clashes with the security forces and threw rocks and Molotov cocktails.
In addition to their violent nature, the recent events were unusual because of the participation of children and those under the age of twenty. The absence of any clear and declared demands behind the violence was another factor that distinguished these events from those that took place before and after the revolution. Additionally, the ambiguity of demands allowed the involvement of various political parties in interpreting the events. Some saw them as a justified uprising against marginalization, poverty, and the failure of the system, others condemned them as riots fueled by the opposition to sow chaos and target the state, and yet other parties saw them as understandable without justifying the violence and looting.
On the third day of the events, President Kais Saied headed to the Mnihla area, where violent clashes had taken place the previous nights, and expressed his understanding of the demonstrators’ demands, accusing the political parties of “trading in people’s pain.” In line with the populist approach to his political rhetoric, the president’s office webpage was quick to broadcast clips in which protesters called on President Saied to dissolve the parties and parliament.4
Prime Minister Hisham El-Mechichi, who had made sweeping changes in his cabinet and removed ministers affiliated with President Saied one day before the start of the events, addressed Tunisians and expressed his understanding of the protests, promising that development will be his government’s goal and that looters will be deal with.5 Speaker of Parliament Rachid Ghannouchi expressed his understanding of the conditions of unemployed youth and stressed that burning institutions will neither benefit Tunisia nor provide work or a decent life to the unemployed.6
Political tensions were also reflected in the reactions of political parties and forces according to their position on the government and their parliamentary support base. The Heart of Tunisia party, which supports the government, denounced the “coordinated” actions and “the incitement” of minors to loot and vandalize in a way that has nothing to do with peaceful demonstrations or freedom of expression.7 Ennahda, which has the largest bloc in Parliament, strongly condemned the vandalism and looting, expressing its strong disapproval of hate speech and incitement to violence among Tunisians.8 On the other hand, most of the parties opposed to the Mechichi government sympathized with the demonstrators. The People’s Movement considered the protests as a “clear rejection” of the plans established by the Mechichi government and the parliamentary coalition supporting it, expressing its “unconditional support” for the principle of peaceful protest guaranteed by the constitution and the right of citizens to express their rejection of what they see as the unpopular and unpatriotic plans that the current government is trying to enact.9 The Democratic Current Party had a similar response, expressing support for peaceful protests and the right to demonstrate without fear of confrontations with the security forces, condemning “the excessive violence” with which the security forces met the demonstrators.10 This is in the context of endless demonstrations in which there have been no deaths nor injuries at the hands of the security forces despite the violent demonstrations and vandalism.
A New Phase of the Crisis
A decade after the revolution and the high hopes that accompanied it, many social and economic difficulties that were among the causes of the 2011 revolution persist, casting a shadow on the political scene and negatively affecting the public mood. Behavioral and social phenomena such as drug consumption and distribution, robbery, rejection of family traditions, emigration, or involvement in organized crime and terrorism are on the rise.
It is clear that the social strata most involved in the recent events were too young in 2010 to comprehend the demands and finer details of the revolution. As such, they are not attracted by the discourse related to democratic transition, consolidation, and preservation, nor concerned with the narratives of political, academic, and cultural elites, their struggles, their interpretations of the economic and standard of living crises, and their proposals for progress and development. Recent events have also shown that the feeling of injustice and falling on the margins of development has left this group isolated in its own world. Their involvement in violence and rioting is nothing but an expression of this crisis.
The success in achieving a democratic political transition in Tunisia, compared to other Arab countries, does not conceal the failure to address social and economic issues, which feeds uprising, rebellion, and social disruption. The economic and social crisis in Tunisia is not a product of the last decade as much as it is a structural crisis due to political choices and developmental policies that have produced poverty, deepened regional disparities, and increased injustice. As long as the elites persevere with their economic and social plans without adjusting them to fit an inclusive national project and adopt an effective communication plan, there will be no solution to the discontent. It will not be possible to achieve development without stability and without the unions and other institutions refraining from impeding the government plans with endless sectoral protests that do not allow the implementation of necessary reforms.
The political tensions and the weak will of the elites in dealing with the economic and social issues over the past decade have exacerbated problems. In recent events, the authorities found themselves facing youth groups without specific demands out on the street at night. Some political parties close to the opposition and the leftist unions tried to impart specific understandings of the events by organizing daytime demonstrations in the center of the capital, protesting the government and its party and parliamentary protectors. But their ability to mobilize appeared lackluster and weak, and the participants did not exceed a few dozen. Noticeable was the participation of parties that failed to achieve any parliamentary representation in the 2019 elections despite the absence of an electoral threshold, chanting slogans about “bringing down the regime.” This shows the absence of their social and national responsibility and puts their government criticism in the plain category of party politics.
Calm has returned to the popular areas of the capital and Tunisian interior following the past few days of night demonstrations punctuated by acts of looting, vandalism, and violent clashes. The country is still vulnerable to more tension due to the structural economic and social crisis and the failure of the elites to agree on a national project that changes development policies that produce marginalization and regional disparities and removes obstacles to an agreed development approach. The short-sighted treatment of repeated protests contributes to the emergence of social behavior and cultural representations outside of elite narratives and discourse. It perpetuates the obstacles of the fragile transition and deepens the indicators of social disruption. Despite the possibility of such events recurring and spilling into other areas that have remained calm thus far, it is unlikely that they will produce any changes due to their lack of a clear identity and the ambiguity of their demands.
An earlier version of this article was published on January 27, 2021 by Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, Qatar.