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Why Tunisia’s revolutionary fire still burns seven years after Arab Spring uprising

© Sarah Leduc, FRANCE 24 | A young demonstrator holds up a cage with the Tunisian flag inside, symbolising Ben Ali’s time in power, during a rally in Tunis on January 14, 2018.

Text by Louise NORDSTROM , Sarah LEDUC

Latest update : 2018-01-15

Tunisia on Sunday marked the seventh anniversary of a revolution that saw the ouster of its autocratic leader, sparking the region-wide Arab Spring. But Tunisia’s revolutionary spirit never died, and austerity seems to be breathing new life into it.

Thousands of people on Sunday thronged Habib Bourguiba Avenue in central Tunis to mark the end of longtime leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s 24-year rule in 2011. But although it was supposed to be a day of celebration – honouring the country’s hard-won freedoms – it became a launchpad for yet another wave of protests against the government.

According to several media outlets, January 14, which began with red heart-shaped balloons and laughing children marching down Habib Bourguiba – the epicentre of the 2011 demonstrations – the night ended with police using teargas on at least a dozen youths in downtown Tunis and firing gas bombs on demonstrators in the city of Feriana, near the Algerian border.

Poverty-stricken Tunisia has been plagued by unrest since the beginning of the year when the government introduced a series of tax and price hikes under the name of a new “finance law”. The measures added fuel to the fire in a country where unemployment among the young already runs at a 35-percent high, and follows the government’s unpopular move last year to offer amnesty to the corruption-accused civil servants who served under Ben Ali. In a poll published by the International Republican Institute on January 10, some 68 percent of Tunisians deem the country’s economic situation to be “very bad”, and the poorest are those considered the hardest hit.

Empty baskets

“The finance law is targeting Tunisia’s poorest,” 48-year-old philosophy professor Foued Elarbi, 48, told FRANCE 24 during Saturday’s rally in Tunis. Carrying a stick with an upside-down basket attached to it, Elarbi said: “This basket is just as upside down as our economy. They’re taking from the poor and giving to the rich, and it (the basket) is just as empty as our state coffers.”

“Every day, the prices increase a little bit more. But Tunisians are smart and we won’t have it. In 1984, we protested against the price of bread, in 2011 we got rid of Ben Ali. Today, we’re ready for the basket revolution!” he said.

Others chanted slogans such as “Government resign!”, “Ditch the finance law” and “While the country is celebrating the revolution, the country is on fire”.

Ousama Najar, 25, and who attended the rally with a group of friends, said that although he is grateful for the freedoms won thanks to the 2011 revolution, Tunisia still has a long way to go when it comes to getting its finances on track. “It’s a day of celebration, we’re happy, but we still have things to demand. The revolution gave us a lot politically and also when it comes to personal liberties. The media is free, society is free and organisations are free. But from an economic viewpoint, nothing has changed.” Like many people his age, Najar is unemployed, despite having recently passed a state-organised exam that under normal circumstance would have guaranteed him a teaching job.

Peaceful clowns

Other demonstrators took a different approach to show their discontent. Members of the Fech Netsanev movement (which roughly translates into “What Are We Waiting For”) came dressed in clown costumes, complete with red noses. “The government wants to make us look like trouble-makers but we’ve come down here with red noses to show that we’re peaceful, that we’re young activists, students and artists who are just asking for social justice,” 22-year-old law student Rhana Bensalem explained, referring to the wave of violence that has plagued Tunisia for over a week, resulting in some 800 arrests and one demonstrator’s death. According to the interior ministry, dozens of police cars and at least two police stations have been damaged in the unrest so far.

“Young Tunisians are desperate. They think the revolution was stolen from them. We’ve waited seven years, but today we’re here to break the silence for once and for all,” she said. “The young won’t stay silent anymore.”

On Saturday, on the eve of the Arab Spring anniversary, the government made an attempt to quell the frustrations and pledged a 70 million dinar (€23.5 million) action programme to help the country’s poorest (about 120,000 Tunisians), offering in addition free health care for the unemployed. The government also announced the creation of an aid fund to help poor families acquire housing.

But, if there's smoke, there may already be fire. Fech Nestanew has already called for a new protest, to be held on January 20.

Date created : 2018-01-15

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