Protests erupt in Tunisia as government struggles to contain virus

Calls for second revolution amid rising unemployment and poverty as economy shrinks

Tunisian protesters gesture as they shout slogans during an anti-government demonstration in the capital, Tunis. Photograph:  Fethi Belaid/AFP via Getty

Tunisian protesters gesture as they shout slogans during an anti-government demonstration in the capital, Tunis. Photograph: Fethi Belaid/AFP via Getty

 

Tunisia, the only democracy to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring, is back at square one. Tunisian people have returned to the streets across their country to call for a second revolution.

Protests have erupted as the government has struggled to contain coronavirus, which has infected 200,000 and killed 6,300. The economy has shrunk, youth unemployment has soared to 30 per cent, poverty has deepened and security forces have clamped down on dissent.

Instead of celebrating the January 14th anniversary of the downfall of 23-year dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the government announced a four-day coronavirus lockdown.

This was intended not only to reduce the rate of infections but also to pre-empt demonstrations by Tunisians who were wounded and families of those killed during the revolution.

Despite the clampdown, they protested and were joined by Arab Spring revolutionaries and marginalised youths.

Two protest movements have formed and continue to demonstrate. They have revived the 2011 chants, “The people want the fall of the regime!” and “Employment, freedom, dignity!” The new slogan, “Neither police nor Islamists, the people want revolution”, refers to the rejection of the role played by the fundamentalist Ennahda Party in post-Arab Spring governments.

‘Wrong Generation’

During the day, largely peaceful middle-class political activists, dubbed the Wrong Generation, have demanded a major overhaul of the unreformed system of governance which has grafted democratic politics on to the rigid administrative structures and the repressive security apparatus of the ousted regime.

Instead of delivering revolutionary demands for change, politicians who have held posts in Tunisia’s eight post-uprising governments have focused on staying in office.

Nights have been taken over by working-class youths in deprived areas who seek revenge for the failure of democracy to deliver jobs and a decent standard of living. Disproportionately affected by Covid-19 confinement, they have rioted in their home neighbourhoods, looted supermarkets and attacked police who have responded with tear gas, beatings and mass arrests.

Human-rights groups report there have been more than 1,000 detentions, with minors forming about a third of those jailed. The authorities have banned gatherings and imposed curfews and lockdowns until February 14th.

After unrest erupted in the Arab world a decade ago, Tunisia’s government clamped down hard on home-grown jihadis and cut the number of disaffected youths in the country by allowing thousands to go to the battlefields of Libya, Syria and Iraq. But after the defeat of Islamic State, potential recruits have stayed home and swelled the ranks of protesters.

Democratic and authoritarian Arab governments alike face popular rejection because they fail to tackle overpopulation, rampant unemployment and poor educational, health and welfare services, as well as rising poverty.

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