Emasculated Tunisians take to the street over price hikes

Protest in Tunisia
 NEW YORK - On Dec. 17, 2010, the Tunisian street-vendor Mohamed Bouazizi doused himself in petrol and set himself on fire to protest police harassment. His self-immolation sparked an uprising that became the Arab Spring and led to the fall of Tunisia’s long-standing ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his police state. It also triggered several popular uprisings in Syria, Bahrain, Morocco, and Jordan; and regime change in other Arabic-speaking countries such as Egypt, Libya, Yemen.
 
 Even though Tunisia has, since 2011, cast a shadow on all other Arabic-speaking nations in adopting a liberal constitution and setting up democratic institutions, the country has witnessed a continuous outbreak of devastating terrorist attacks and social unrest.
 
 One should know that sporadic protests are common in the Maghreb (Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia). But the most recent violent protests in Tunisia raised fears of broader turbulence as they took place in January. The month that marks the anniversary of the 2011 uprising that led to Ben Ali's overthrow.
 
 The ousting of Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia for 24 years, raised the prospects of swift socio-political changes, particularly an end to embezzlement, corruption, and a much fairer distribution of wealth. But most Tunisians have seen no sign of the hoped-for changes in the economy and their destitute lives.
 
 Now demonstrators want to push the leaders to hasten economic and political reforms. Nevertheless, we cannot squeeze water from a stone! Many of these leaders are veterans of Ben Ali’s successive governments – and current President Beji Caid Essebsi was speaker of parliament under Ben Ali.
 
 Now, seven years after dictator Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, Tunisians have taken to the streets over an austerity program and rising prices. But the straw that broke the camel’s back is the latest government’s decision to implement new austerity measures on Jan. 1.
 
 The unrest began when a small crowd of civil society and opposition activists in Tunis was dispersed by riot police. Almost immediately, most cities and villages were affected. During scuffles with police at least one demonstrator has been killed and more than 500 people arrested.
 
 The government said the rise in fuel prices and taxes on many products and services were needed to help keep the country afloat, and meet conditions demanded by international lenders and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which is providing dlrs 2.9 billion in loans. Everybody knows that IMF loans always come with strings attached!
 
 But for Tunisians, infuriated by a frail economy, and the tourism industry ruined by the horrific 2015 terror attacks, the prospect of exorbitant basic goods such as bread, semolina, cooking gas, and high-priced other goods was enough to trigger the recent riots.
 
 Many observers believe that these G8-backed IMF economic reforms will indubitably impact ordinary people. And the long-term effects would be high levels of poverty, chronic corruption, faltering public services, deep inequality, and persistent youth unemployment, particularly among graduates, as many of those who have taken to the streets are disgruntled and disenfranchised students. And no wonder why many more young men and women have left to fight in the ranks of IS/DAECH in Syria from Tunisia than from any other Maghrebi (North African) nation.
 
 Not unlike other countries in the Maghreb, government officials and their affiliate spin-doctors have played down these demonstrators’ socio-economic grievances whilst they underscored their wrongdoing. Tunisian prime minister Youssef Chahed accused opposition leaders of being political agitators and conspirators.
 
 However, Human Rights campaigners and activists denounced the authorities’ indiscriminate crackdown.
 
 Authorities are now on the horns of a dilemma. Maintaining the austerity measures would trigger further protests and ultimately heavy losses at Tunisia's first post-revolution municipal elections to be held on May 6. Giving in to the pressure of the street could undeniably defuse the crisis and temporarily iron out ideological differences but jeopardize long-term financial and political stability.
 
 For many analysts, Tunisia – with its well-educated middle-class, has the potential to become a beacon for the Maghreb and the rest of the Arabic-speaking world if the Tunisian government is willing to rectify its socio-economic and political agenda. Otherwise, it would slip into the anarchy and destruction that has sadly consumed Libya, Syria, and Yemen.
 
 It should also be noted that many Arabic-speaking countries, whether in the Maghreb or in the Gulf, do not really favor the blossoming of democracy in Tunisia. And they would spare no effort to nip it in the bud.
 
 Countries such as Egypt and Libya, where tyrants were ousted, are once again under despotic rule, or have since nose-dived into a shattering civil war. But Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, remains its shining star – despite the vicissitudes of politics in the MENA region.
 
- Dr. Abdelkader Cheref is an independent scholar based in the United States
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