Tunisian journalist Abderrazak Zorgui died on December 24 after setting himself on fire, in the hopes of inciting a revolution in Tunisia. Following in the footsteps of Mohammad Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in 2010 and is credited with inciting the Arab Spring movement across Tunisia and North Africa, Zorgui attributed his actions to the Tunisian “people who have no means of subsistence”, stating that, “… Today, I start a revolution,” according to RT.
His actions have already seen results through protest less than a week after they took place, with movements sparking all over the country, including a violent protest in Kasserine on Monday night. Kasserine, the very city in which Zorgui began his protest, has come to represent the economic difficulty and poor living conditions found throughout Tunisia. The resulting protests reflect Tunisians’ desires for the government to work to stimulate economic growth and better living conditions, rather than implementing austerity measures that make living more difficult for Tunisians already struggling with high levels of unemployment and poor living conditions.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Mohamed Dhia Hammami, an independent research consultant, explains the plight of the protesters, addressing issues of Tunisian dinar depreciation, along with price and tax increases reflected in the 2018 budget. Statistics from the World Bank reflect these claims, showing an inflation increase from 4.2 percent in 2016 to 7.8 percent in 2018, which is attributed to currency depreciation, energy price increases, wage inflation and credit growth. And with poverty rates as high as 30.8 percent in the Center West region of the country as of 2015, the protests are not surprising.
Nicholas Noe, co-director of the Tunis Exchange summit, likewise in an interview with Al Jazeera, explains that the government has failed the Tunisian people by increasing strain on the middle and working class through austerity measures in working with the IMF, rather than addressing the root problems of “economic and security rot”, which allows for an inner circle of wealth surrounded by difficulty. The need for aid and reforms in the security forces and among economic elite is emphasized by the 50 percent of the Tunisian economy that is in the black market, according to Noe.
With obvious economic problems and little evidence of growth or improvement in recent years, protests are not surprising, nor are they to be condemned. While peaceful protests are occurring throughout Tunisia in response to Zorgui’s immolation on Monday, violence — both on the part of police and protesters — will not incite peace in the country. Discontent with the actions of the government to introduce reforms and stimulate growth and social programs runs so deep that the Tunisian National Journalists’ Union considers the state itself to be a contributor to Zorgui’s death, as they did not crack down on corruption and the multitude of social difficulties, which resulted in a “lack of hope”.
The need for a response to harsh social, living, and economic conditions in Tunisia is reflected by the protesters, and the need to avoid violence is essential in maintaining peace throughout this process.
Zorgui’s chosen method of inciting a revolution parallels the course of action Bouazizi took in 2010, which resulted in the Arab Spring movement. The resulting democratic revolution overthrew the Ben Ali government, which had been in power in Tunisia since 1987.
Tunisia is considered to have seen some of the highest levels of success from the movement that spread throughout North Africa, as it saw a regime change and was able to transition to more democratic processes and effective elections. Despite the perceived successes of the Tunisian Revolution, austerity measures, including the raising of taxes and costs of goods like coffee and gas, have put a strain on the middle and working classes, and continue to contribute to high unemployment and poor living conditions, encouraging continued political protest in the country.
Whether or not self-immolation will continue to be used as a means of gaining attention to call for a revolution in the region is not known, though it has been done three times already in Tunisia since Bouazizi and including Zorgui. The fact that this drastic measure is seen as a necessary and effective measure of gaining attention and protesting conditions of such hopelessness reflects not only the social and economic difficulties faced in the country, but also the need for a battle against corruption within the media sector in Tunisia.
The Tunisian National Journalists’ Union (SNJT) condemned contributions that have made media a “hot-bed for corruption”. In working towards peace in Tunisia, it will remain essential to invest in the people — the ones who are facing the brunt of austerity and seemingly hopeless conditions. Without addressing the needs of the Tunisian people themselves, and focusing solely on the larger economic situation of the country as a whole, political turmoil, protests with likelihood of violence, and acts like those of Zorgui will continue to be seen as the only way for Tunisians to fight for a better life.