Tunisian Protests Reflect Longstanding Economic Difficulties

Despite Tunisia’s success with the Arab Spring Movement in 2011 and implementation of a democratic system of government, the country’s economy has remained bogged down by debt and international loan packages. Years of dinar depreciation and inflation amid public sector salary freezes has led Tunisians to take to the streets in protest numerous times since the 2011 revolution. Most recently, Tunisians initiated a massive strike. The strike was called for by the Tunisia General Labour Union (UGTT) after unsuccessful efforts to negotiate wage increases with the government. Millions of Tunisians went on strike on January 17, 2019, shutting down airports, trains, schools, hospitals, media, and government services in Tunis and throughout the country. Furthermore, due to longstanding teacher strikes, students have also begun protesting to highlight their need for the public services they are guaranteed by the state.

Despite democratic gains, Tunisians are not satisfied with the still struggling economy and wages that do not reflect increased inflation. Ouest France reports that the proposed 2019 budget only allowed for raises of 130-180 dinars over the next two years, and strikers are claiming this won’t combat the 7.5% inflation rate seen in 2018. Meanwhile, Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed claims the government simply does not have the funding necessary to implement the strike-proposed wages. Tunisia accepted a $2.7 million loan from the IMF in 2016, and is subsequently being pushed to freeze public sector wages in an effort to reduce their role in Tunisia’s economic difficulties.

While the government is under pressure from both the IMF and Tunisians themselves, a long-term program for structural economic reforms to combat inflation and reinstate jobs is essential to the success of the current government. Some protesters are calling for a new government, while others are simply demanding a new economic plan. Notably, the deputy of the Popular Front, Aymen Aloui, said in an interview with Tunisie Numerique that the current government is “dangerous for Tunisians” and needs to go. One step the current government could take to attempt to satisfy some of the pleas of its people is to recall the recent 2019 budget and reinstate one with greater long-term outlook that won’t punish Tunisian civil servants today.

The current state of constant protests and strikes is not helpful to the plight of the Tunisian economy themselves by affecting the already suffering Tunisian tourism industry. After the strike on January 17, more strikes were scheduled for late February, which will only add to the strain on the economy. The government needs to act fast to prove it is working the requests of the strikers into its planning to avert the strikes in February. The government has taken some action in the right direction by announcing a multi-million-dollar action plan to help the lower and middle classes, according to Al Jazeera. The Minister of Social Affairs said the aid will benefit 250,000 families. Still, this in itself has not satisfied the pleas of the protesters, and more needs to be done to systematically reverse the current economic system.

Not all hope for the current government is lost though, and the African Development Bank announced that Tunisia would contribute the most to its ambitious program to make 25,000 jobs for youths in the next ten years. The plan will focus heavily on improving infrastructure, creating jobs for 18-25 year olds, and increasing social investments. With the success of this program, Tunisia could find an opportunity to boost its economy and move forward with the goals of the protesters.

The situation in Tunisia is not one to be taken lightly. Protests and strikes have been plaguing the country for years since its democratic revolution, and the recent self-immolation of a journalist, reflecting the actions of Mohammad Bouazizi in 2010 which incited the Arab Spring movement across North Africa, are alarming for both Tunisians and the international community. Still struggling with deep-rooted economic problems since the overthrow of Ben Ali, and with continued accusations of corruption, Tunisians could be on the brink of another government overthrow. If steps to raise wages to at least reflect dinar depreciation and inflation aren’t taken soon, Tunisians may begin to feel they have nothing to lose by instating a new government. A new political party, the Democratic Patriotic Party, was already created this January, whose goals are to instate the reforms called for by the strikers and protesters. With no change in government until the next election, the Democratic Patriotic Party could gain momentum and some governmental positions as soon as the end of 2019, when elections are scheduled.