Since the start of 2018 demonstrators have taken to the streets in Tunisia, protesting against the rising cost of living. The army was deployed following the death of a protestor, Khomsi el-Yerfeni, in Tebourba on 9 January.
When mass protests in Tunisia, led by the labour movement and the UGTT trade union federation, toppled the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January 2011, the work of dismantling the neo-liberal order he had built was only beginning.
Seven years on, Tunisia’s workers are still bearing the terrible weight of poverty and inequality, and their struggles for justice have ground on.
For example, in the Gafsa phosphate mining region, the cradle of the Arab Spring, a large palm and date plantation has been occupied by local workers since 2011, in spite of bloody repression by the “county set” and their henchmen.
Further south, in oil-rich Tataouine, 2017 saw a mass movement of unemployed youth carrying out sit-ins, marches and roadblocks to demand jobs, unemployment in the region running at 27% (36% among graduates). Worried authorities created 1,500 jobs right away, promising as many more by 2019.
Strikes and protests have swept the country periodically since the revolution, but none as substantial as those seen in recent days.
On 1 January 2018, President Caid Essebsi’s coalition government of secularists and Islamists brought its Finance Law into force. The Finance Law aims to repay international lenders and cut the government’s deficit by levying hefty taxes on consumer goods, covering everything from phone calls to coffee. The price increases resulting from these taxes come on top of substantial inflation: the price of fresh vegetables went up 12.8% in 2017, olive oil 21.3%.
Nightly protests began shortly after the law came into force. By 8 January they had spread across the country, including to Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose death in 2010 sparked the Arab Spring. Roadblocks and the destruction of banks, police stations and official buildings became widespread. Participation in the protests is overwhelmingly working-class, and the traditionally-militant Ettadhamen district of Tunis has been particularly mobilised.
On the island of Djerba, someone took advantage of the chaos to burn a Jewish school, an act thought to be politically unrelated to the protests, but indicative of the antisemitism which has surged in traditionally-tolerant Tunisia alongside rising Islamist influence since 2011.
The Popular Front of left-wing opposition parties called for mass rallies against the law to coincide with the 14 January anniversary of Ben Ali’s flight. But the “Fech Nestanow?” [What are we waiting for?] coalition of youth activists may be more influential in directing the slogans and pace of events.
On 3 January, the grouping gathered on Tunis’s grand Avenue Habib Bourguiba that runs between the market and the Ministry of the Interior, to distribute a manifesto calling for:
• guaranteed social and health coverage for the unemployed
• housing for poor families,
• increased benefits for poor families,
• a job for one member of every family,
• a revision of financial policy based on individual incomes,
• a national anti-corruption drive by the government,
• the suspension of the 2018 Finance Law.
• the creation of regional co-ordinations to press these demands.
Six days later they held rallies on the street outside the National Theatre, which has been a customary forum for political discussions since 2011, raising slogans like “The people demand the fall of the Finance Law and the government” and “Citizens, work hard and give your money to [Prime Minister] Chahed”. The words “Fech Nestanow” have since appeared on walls across Tunisia.
Fech Nestanow is a network of younger activists whose leading figures are drawn in large part from the “Menich Msama” movement [“I won’t forgive”], which opposed a proposal to pardon old-regime figures charged with corruption. One of their spokespeople, Henda Chennaoui, is a 34-year-old freelance journalist. Another spokesman, Wael Naouar, is himself a member of the Popular Front.
On Saturday 13 January, UGTT leaders and politicians from the coalition government met in the Palace of Carthage, the opulent former residence of Ben Ali, to draft proposals for a package of poverty-relief measures. But the Popular Front and Fech Nestanow have denounced the package and protests continued as Solidarity went to press.