Tunisia Anti-Austerity Protests Turn Deadly

Protests in Tunisia over the government’s austerity measures have resulted in the loss of life and further collisions with government forces threatening national peace. On the evening of the 8th of January, a 55-year-old man died following a protest over government austerity measures in Tebourba, 40km west of the capital Tunis. Al Jazeera reports that five others were injured during the protests, which erupted following the implementation of a new state-wide budget which took effect on January 1st, 2018. As the protests have continued across the country, The Guardian reports that as of January 12th approximately 800 people, including opposition leaders, had been detained. The newly devised budget threatens the high-volume of deprived Tunisians as it includes hikes in the VAT and social contributions, as well as large increases in the price of basic goods.

The BBC reports that Prime Minister Youssef Chahed has condemned what he has referred to as acts of “vandalism” being carried out by the protesters, accusing them of attempting to weaken national unity and the state. Chahed has given assurances that “2018 will be the last difficult year for the Tunisians”, claiming that the tax increases would benefit the economy in the long-term, a claim which protesters doubt. Warnings against those protesting have been issued by Mr Chahed, stating that their behaviour is “outside of the law” and that as a democratic state, protesting should occur during the daylight hours.

Since Tunisia’s democratic transition, appeals have been made to international organisations, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to help reignite the Tunisian economy and avoid another state-wide crisis. In 2016, the IMF approved a four-year loan for Tunisia consisting of $2.9 billion with the expectation that the funds be invested in the state to ignite job creation across the country, and towards helping families in desperate need of government aid. With the IMF extended loan which aimed to target the inherent structural weakness of Tunisia’s economy, the government’s 2018 approved budget does not remain faithful to the inherent objective of the loan. Amna Guellali, the Tunisian researcher for the Human Rights Watch, has condoned the actions of government forces claiming that recent events have caused an “unacceptable” surge in random arrests. The government has responded to what began as peaceful protests with undemocratic orders to not protest, and moreover, with hostility.

Tunisia is well-known as the country to have survived the Arab spring as a democratic state. Nevertheless, Tunisia has struggled with maintaining a stable and profitable economy, the consequences of which have been felt across the nation. Due to the anniversary of the 2010 uprisings in Tunisia, January has proven to be a tense month across the state for Tunisians, with Tunisia’s most desperate taking to the streets to protest high levels of poverty, inequality and youth unemployment. The 2018 protests have, thus far, seen state buildings being burnt down and the consequent stationing of the army into several cities and towns across the country. With the seventh anniversary of the ouster of authoritarian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, activists are expected to continue demonstrations until their demands are heard.

Recently published research conducted by the International Republican Institute states that 68% of Tunisians believe that the country is heading in the “wrong direction,” a trend that has persisted since mid-2012. ‘Solutions’ to Tunisia’s protests must be recognized to encompass more than ending the current protests. The Tunisian government must seek to understand and end the violence occurring on the streets of Tunisia in a democratic fashion, by pledging to work alongside communities and opposition parties to address the grievances associated with the 2018 budget. If Tunisia’s public is not reassured, Tunisia faces a possible reoccurrence of the events that led to the fateful Arab spring as the protests continue to revive concerns over Tunisia’s susceptible political situation.

Zoe Knight