By Larbi Sadiki 

Since 2017, Tunisia’s interior and south have witnessed a wave of ongoing protests, characterised by the slogan ‘al-rakh la’, meaning ‘No Relenting’. These protests have tested the resilience of the country’s democracy. Though they intermittently disrupt phosphate and oil production, they do so against the disruption of lives in towns like Gafsa, Kasserine or Tataouine, where democracy is yet to end marginalisation.

As the Tunisian government celebrated its ‘victory’ over the spread of COVID-19 on 25 June, protestors in Tataouine, at the southern tip of the country, sounded a different note. The jubilation over the release of the Kamour Hirak detainees did not prevent the activists from getting back to the business of protesting. The Kamour Hirak is a three-year-old protest in Tunisia’s southern Tataouine province, focused around grievances related to jobs in the oil and gas fields in the area, and on the share of funds from the hydrocarbon industry to be earmarked for local development. The activists in this loose group of protesters, who mostly rely on employment in the southern region’s oilfields, are demanding jobs and investments as part of a regional development fund that had been promised to them under a 2017 agreement with Youcef Chahed’s government.

Sustained protest

The Kamour protests did not erupt in a vacuum; they must be situated within the context of more than fifteen years of revolutionary action in the phosphate basin. The causes are still the same as they were late 2010 and 2011 when the former president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was ousted. Multiple marginalisation is still the common incubator of the protests.

The protests are reminders of several interconnected issues. First, policy inertia when it comes to youth unemployment and regional marginalisation is a festering problem crying for urgent attention. Second, they sound an alarm about southern youth being disaffected and disenchanted with Tunisia’s new rulers. Third, they have created a protest multiplier effect, eliciting a widespread sense of solidarity and unity with the marginalised people of the south and centre. Last, the state’s coercive apparatus’s reaction to these protests shows that old habits die hard: when politics fails, there is an escalation of violent police tactics.

Recent weeks have seen an escalation of protests in Tataouine as the working class ups the ante. Tansiqiyyat al-Kamour is a newer movement that mirrors persistent unrest in Gafsa’s phosphate basin, but protests and sit-ins have disrupted Tunisian phosphate production for years, recently resulting in production being 27.5 per cent lower than the 2.7 million ton goal set by the Gafsa Phosphate Company.

Before the 2011 revolution, protestors faced the challenge of dealing with the authoritarian state under Ben Ali. Arrests and state security repression included violence that resulted in at least four deaths in the famous phosphate basin events of 2008. Now, the same protesters are wrangling with a new democratic state that includes a stumbling transitional justice process for previous state crackdowns. Importantly, the demands of Gafsa’s marginalised people have not changed much since before the 2011 uprising.

Democracy is not enough

These clusters of unruliness across the country’s south represent movements of moral protest. Activists insist on a minimum standard of dignity to complement the hard-won freedoms of the 2011 uprising, and, when it is lacking, protests erupt periodically in the long-marginalised south of the country, with its long history of state neglect since formal independence in 1956. Tunisia’s politicians may rightly declare that COVID-19 exposed deep social inequality in the country, but economic and social exclusion are not news to those suffering deprivation in the south. One government after another seems incapable of finding solutions to poverty, unemployment, poor healthcare infrastructure (highlighted during the COVID-19 crisis), and lethal environmental damage in Tataouine, Gafsa, Kasserine (with Sidi Bouzid – the birthplace of the 2010-11 uprising), among other interior and southern regions.

Kamour’s latest escalation is but one manifestation of long-simmering discontent, accompanied by feelings of discrimination in broad segments of the country. For the people in these areas, the richer Sahel (coast), including the capital and surrounding areas, is a world away. The democratic ‘pill’ may have quelled some of the indignation in Tunisia’s marginal areas since 2011, but protests have not faded from the scene since Ben Ali’s fall.

The state’s heavy-handed approach to sit-ins and protests, such as the confiscation of 13 tents in Tataouine last week, did not go down well; indeed, it resulted in many citizens feeling unseen and unheard. ‘These events were painful,’ said Khalifah Bohoush, a member of Tansiqiyyat Al-Kamour. He complained that the government had violated protestors’ dignity. ‘We felt insulted…[after] we had chanted thawrah (revolution) in one voice with all Tunisians!’ Like Bohoush, many feel that the canisters of tear gas, the broken arms and legs, and the curses and insults hurled by security officials signal that not all Tunisian citizens are equal, that the country’s north is more deserving of wealth and government attention than the south’s forgotten and restless youth.

Democratisation has raised the expectations of unemployed youth seeking jobs, and of poverty-stricken families, all of whom wait to realise the distributive responsibilities of the state, and the peaceful settlement of disputes. Kamour youth continually stress their constitutional right to protest. Upon his release, Kamour spokesperson Tarek al Haddad admonished the country’s politicians that Ben Ali’s days were over: after 2011, there is no rule by force, he said. Why, then, the vicious crackdown, the teargas, the violence, the foul language?

These latest clashes between protestors and security ­­officials remind us that the ballot is not enough. Especially for a poor country beleaguered by deep inequalities, voting people into parliament and presidents into office is not an end in itself; elected officials should represent constituents’ demands. In this case, these demands include the implementation of a three-year-old agreement guaranteeing 1 500 jobs in oil companies (for instance, in the new Nawara plant), 500 landscape/agricultural jobs, and TND 80 million (about $28 400 000) a year for a regional development fund in Tataouine.

Democratic ethos and practice furnish the framework for constant dialogue between state and society, voters and officials. Reverting to the old Ben Ali-era tactics that made the Interior Ministry notorious in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world does not square well with democratisation. At this democratic moment, Tunisia finds itself doubly besieged. Internally, the government of Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh faces the challenge of the ‘hirak’ and the youth stubbornly hanging onto government pledges to deliver the goods. A cabinet meeting late last week discussed the original pledge, inching closer to meeting the Kamour protesters’ demands for jobs. The embattled prime minister is also busy with a burgeoning ‘conflict of interest’ scandal. Externally, Tunisia is deeper in debt than ever before; a perfunctory calculation of debt accumulated during the past few months of the COVID-19 crisis tallies up to more than a USD 1 billion.

Who will pay back these loans, and where is the COVID-19 assistance going? Ultimately, democracy creates openings for solving people’s problems, particularly when opportunities arise. The epidemic was one such opportunity, the latest protests in the interior and the south are another. If youth grievances continue to fester in the country’s marginalised (and border) regions, any awe of democracy that still exists may fade. These youth publicly insist on the peacefulness, legality, and the justness of their demands and their tactics. The government should not lose them as interlocutors for confronting the country’s problems. Before Fakhfakh, the Chahed government lost credibility by failing to satisfactorily fulfil its Kamour promises. 

The current government seems to follow a policy of delay and decay: deferring distributive justice and sinking in political paralysis. The new president, Kais Saeid, seemed to have acted proactively by meeting with the Kamour protesters. However, not much has materialised since that encounter. And it was followed by a stain on his reputation when, on a recent tour France, he secured Tunisia’s latest loan instalment of $350 million and asserted in an interview on France24 that Tunisia had been a protectorate, rather than a colony, of France. Tunisia had not been not colonised the way that Algeria had, he insisted. In one interview, Saeid erased and rewrote Tunisian history and the numerous struggles and sacrifices against French colonialism.

Whether or not ‘protectorate’ is a precise legal designation is beside the point. Language always implies power. It is tactless and jarring that a sitting Tunisian president would reproduce the linguistic understandings of colonial discourse, which underpin decades of physical and cultural violence. Saeid revealed not only his lack of sophistication, but also an aloofness from Tunisian society. He demonstrated a willingness, for whatever reason, to verbally violate elements of the basis of a multi-vocal Tunisian identity whose very postcoloniality was forged in sacrifices of life and limb, for the sake of freedom.

Perhaps the president should reread Frantz Fanon and Edward Said. He would do well to re-immerse himself in the voices of local resisters and Tunisian voices such as Abdelaziz Al-Tha’albi, Farhat Hashad, Habib Bourguiba, to name but a few, who struggled, wrote, organised, and fought against colonialism. However, even more damaging to Saeid’s reputation has been his foot-dragging in making good on his promise to the Kamour youth who he met in January.

A distracted parliament

Tunisia has recently experienced parliamentary mayhem, epitomised in June’s ‘battle of the petitions’ that included one petition on 9 June that was sponsored by the Dignity Coalition, which demanded an apology from France for its colonial crimes. The debacle illustrated the lack of an ethos of respectful dialogue among MPs from rival parties (even within the government’s teetering ruling coalition). Instead, citizens witness cheap showmanship and sensationalism, ideological polarisation, and a willingness to turn parliament into a new televised battleground for region-wide conflicts.

Parliamentary deliberation has ceded to ‘petitioning’ by constantly bickering political parties and coalitions. The bickering has become more ideological and historical than contemporary or for Tunisia’s benefit. We see parliamentarian seek to issue final judgements on history (on, for example, Bourguiba’s legacy), or to position themselves vis-à-vis regional discord (regarding, for instance, pro- or anti-Turkey sentiments with respect to the conflict in Libya). This has intensified polarisation. Such raucousness in the legislature has distracted and detracted from real social and economic woes felt in Tataouine, Gafsa, Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid and other interior and southern regions.

Civil society actors, from Tataouine and Kasserine’s protesting youth to an Arab-wide initiative calling for the cancellation of exploitative international loans, may be ahead of politicians in demanding solutions for worsening socio-economic predicaments. Yet it remains up to those who hold power in Tunisia, the controllers of its purse strings, to activate the country’s impressive democratic toolkit. The government should ramp up the budgets of regions with special needs: unemployment, poverty, crumbling public amenities, etc. These are problems that will not go away.

Enacting policies that inch towards responsiveness to urgent citizen demands and away from external dependency is a Herculean but inescapable task, if not out of a sense of moral obligation, then at least because the disruptions of protests will not simply disappear. Kamour’s youth chant it in protests and scrawl it on walls: ‘Al rakh la’ – resist, and stay the course. Democracy demands they be taken seriously.

Thinking ahead: researching protests

From an epistemological angle, Tunisian and other Arab protests force us to revisit their common puzzle and research trajectories via a positivist take (when and how are protests inevitable?), and a normative angle (when, how and why should elected politicians represent the marginalised and the protesters?). In Tunisia, the biggest gain of the 2011 uprising is freedom. Freedom, however, begets more freedom, reinforcing different actors’ quests for dignity. It knows no limits in reimagining polity and democratic citizenship of equal (distributive, not adversarial) opportunity.

What do Tunisia’s protests share with contemporaneous moral protests and riots? In a nutshell, even if in some form or other they are conditioned by local concerns related to specific sociopolitical realities, they seem to share patterns of misrule and injustice. Arab protests from Beirut or Tripoli in Lebanon to Suweida in Syria, from Gafsa to Morocco’s Rif, keep millions of youth hanging on to possibilities of justice, democracy and better lives: ‘Al rakh la!’

Larbi Sadiki is a Tunisian writer, political scientist and Professor at the Qatar University. He was formerly a scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center. Sadiki's writing focuses on the democratization of the Arab world as well as human rights studies and dialogue between the Western and Islamic civilizations.

** This article was first published in openDemocracy (8 July 2020)

Despite the resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi on 30 November 2019, protests in Iraq endure, with protester demands having evolved to include calls for a restructuring of the political system. An indication of how serious the situation is, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has become more vocal, calling, on 20 December, for immediate new elections. The protesters’ call for a revamp of the political system means that there is little possibility, in the immediate future, for the demands of the protesters to be met and for the uprising to end, since the likelihood of finding a compromise candidate who will be acceptable to protesters, and protect the country’s entrenched political actors, is remote. Instability is likely to intensify as the different actors continue jostling to instrumentalise the protest movement, especially in light of the attack on protesters securing the Sinak Bridge in Baghdad earlier this month, which killed over twenty people. What is certain, however, is that Iran’s role in the country, both as influencer and mediator, is increasingly being threatened.

The demonstrations, which consolidated into their current form in early October, were mainly a protest against the country’s endemic corruption and high unemployment rate, especially among graduates. Despite Iraq’s possessing the fourth-largest oil reserves in the world, around a quarter of Iraqis live on less than a dollar a day, and youth unemployment stands at between fifteen and seventeen per cent; Transparency International names it the twelfth worst country on its 2018 corruption perception index. These protests are a continuation of the July 2018 protests in Basra and other southern and central provinces, and have been spurred by grievances over corruption and poor public services. However, the movement has expanded in 2019 to include Baghdad.

Significantly, the 2018 and 2019 protests both have been mainly comprised of Iraqi Shi'a, who, despite being the majority in the country, had been marginalised during Saddam Hussein’s reign, but whose influence increased in 2005, during the US occupation. Previous popular protests, especially in 2013 and 2014, had largely comprised of disillusioned Sunnis, and thus were more easily dismissed by the new (Shi'a) political elite. They were also mainly restricted to majority Sunni provinces such as Anbar and Ramadi; the perceived sectarian composition meant that they did not seriously threaten the survival of the regime.

The Abdul Mahdi administration had acknowledged the legitimacy of protesters’ demands, and had resolved to enact electoral reform. However, as with its response in 2018, the government simultaneously attempted to violently quell demonstrations, killing over 400 and injuring around 8000 since October, mostly in Baghdad and in southern provinces such as Nasiriyah. This inflamed tensions further, with many now seeking a full overhaul of the country’s political structure. 

The situation has been worsened by attempts to instrumentalise the protests, especially by the influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose main support base is in the south, the epicentre of the protests, and who, in recent weeks, has dispatched armed personnel to protect protesters. Sadr had also previously advocated a general strike. Attempts to find a compromise between the different political blocs were bearing fruit in late October, following meetings between Sadr and the the Hashd Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces) leader Hadi Al-Ameri. However, Iranian mediation stunted the effort. An agreement was concluded by most of the blocs, including Sadr’s, with Tehran’s mediation to protect Abdul Mahdi and to stall the protests, but protester anger rendered this impossible to implement. Protesters have since become more vociferously against Iran’s role in the country, and Iranian consular buildings were attacked in Najaf and Karbala in November. 

Iraqi politics is largely dominated by blocs of veteran politicians, many with links to Iran or its clerical establishment. A 2005 Constitution divides power among Sunnis, Shi'as and Kurds. The 2018 parliamentary election saw no political bloc gain a majority. Sadr’s influence was, however, enhanced; his party received the highest number of seats but had to rule in coalition with the Hashd al-Shaabi, in a deal brokered by Iran. The established blocs, including Sadr’s, benefit from the current political configuration, hence. That is why, though Sadr and Ameri first agreed on the need for Abdul Mahdi’s resignation, they later closed ranks behind him following the Iranian mediation.

Protester demands were given a boost in November after receiving direct support from the country’s most influential cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, whose criticisms of the government’s will to implement  reforms was the main factor influencing Abdul Mahdi’s eventual resignation. Sistani has also been increasingly critical of Iran’s role in Iraq, and he has asserted that the formation of an Iraqi government had to be accomplished between Iraqis without outside meddling. Sistani’s support has provided further legitimacy for the protests, widening their appeal and dividing the Hashd, many of whom now support the protests, after Sistani’s criticisms of the government, while other Hashd groups take their cue from Iran. Sistani does not usually comment on party political matters, and is revered by most political actors in the country. His occasional political calls usually get implemented, such as his call for early elections in 2003, for the removal of Nuri al-Maliki in 2014, and for the taking up of arms against the Islamic State group, which resulted in the formation of the Hashd, were all largely implemented.

Tensions are boiling over, with suspicion intensifying in the protest camps. This has not been helped by the current stalemate between the government and protesters and is engendering a power vacuum, which can easily be exploited by different actors. Two attacks on 7 December on protesters camped on the Sinak bridge in Baghdad (which killed over twenty), and on Sadr’s home in Najaf,  add to the potential for protests to become militarised, especially since Sadr’s supporters possess arms and the Iraqi military is in flux, after Abdul Mahdi’s resignation. Some have accused Sadr of being involved in the attack, but this is unlikely, since his supporters were helping secure the bridge and the drone attack was aimed at him. It is thus more likely that the attacks, especially on Sadr’s residence, were instigated by one of the Hashd groups opposed to the protests.

Following Abdul Mahdi’s resignation, the country has until 16 December to nominate a new candidate for prime minister, but the events of the past few weeks have impeded the impetus and abilities for the different actors to find a consensus, even though this failure will likely weaken their positions. No names have been put forward to replace Abdul Mahdi, with Sadr’s bloc, Sairoon, insisting that a new prime minister be chosen by the anti-government protesters, and that no previous minister or anyone that might be rejected by the protesters is a suitable candidate. Protesters have already been circulating their own lists for who should succeed Abdul Mahdi. Sistani, meanwhile, issued his own statement on 20 December, calling for immediate elections. The prime minister’s resignation has left a power vacuum and limited accountability, especially since the Abdul Mahdi government can only act in a ‘caretaker’ role for the next thirty days, curtailing both its powers and longevity to see any process through. 

Sistani supports the UN Assistance mission in Iraq’s (UNAMI) November road map, which calls for constitutional change, electoral reform, the release of protesters, job creation and investigations into the deaths of protesters. It is probably the only means of exiting the current impasse. However, its implementation will weaken the powers of the entrenched political blocs, and the likelihood oof its success is therefore limited. Iran’s failure to mediate, like it did in 2018 with Abdul Mahdi’s appointment, might suggest its diminishing influence in Iraq; Sistani’s vailed criticisms of Iran could further weaken Tehran’s position, which remains strong. 

The large-scale and wide geographic spread of protests in Sudan over the past few weeks pose a greater threat to the regime of President Omar Al-Bashir than ever before in his thirty-year grip on power. After the mobilisation over the period of weeks, the demonstrations on Thursday, 24 January were possibly the largest that Sudan has ever witnessed since the country’s independence. Sparked on 19 December 2018 by bread price hikes and foreign currency shortages, the uprisings mutated into direct calls for the regime’s downfall and for Bashir’s removal, epitomised in the pithy slogan “Tasqut bas!” (Let it [the regime] fall; enough!). 

The protests began in the small town of Atbara, which, like most of the country, has been suffering the ill effects of the government’s austerity measures implemented through its 2018 budget. The budget removed bread subsidies, causing prices to triple from around one Sudanese pound a loaf to three pounds. The currency was also devalued thrice in 2018, and now stands at around fifty Sudanese pounds to one US dollar, down from six pounds to the dollar at the beginning of 2018. Worsening matters, inflation is at seventy per cent, and with shortages of currency, cash withdrawals have been restricted. Significantly, since 2011, Sudan has had to cope with the loss of around seventy per cent of government revenues as a result of the secession of the south to form South Sudan, which produced seventy-five per cent of Sudan’s oil. The economic crisis has been aggravated by economic mismanagement, patronage and wars in the Blue Nile and South Kordofan provinces where the government attempts to militarily suppress dissent in a similar manner to what it previously had unsuccessfully attempted in the south. These combined problems have drained state coffers, and Khartoum is seeking an IMF bailout.

Originally initiated by youth, the protests rapidly grew and escalated to include a broad spectrum of the society; it is currently led by the Sudan Professionals’ Association (SPA), a large organisation with members – mainly engineers, doctors and teachers – in and outside Sudan. The uprising spread throughout the country, including to Darfur, in spite of the government’s heavy-handed response, which resulted in fifty-one deaths and 1 000 arrests to date. Opposition parties, including the influential Umma Party and the Popular Congress Party (PCP) joined the protests. Umma’s Sadiq al-Mahdi, a former Sudanese president, recently ended his self-imposed exile and returned to Sudan from Egypt to participate in the protests. The involvement of these political forces, coupled with the government’s initially repressive approach, contributed to protesters’ demands evolving from economic to political calls for the regime’s ouster.

In addition, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) from Darfur and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement North (SPLM-N) both suspended peace talks with the regime in an attempt to deliver additional pressure. Significantly, the protests are different to those in 2012-13, which were concentrated in the capital city. The current protests have sprouted in areas outside Khartoum, including in many rural areas, resulting in the regime being unable easily to contain them. Moreover, they are more representative of all sectors of Sudanese society, and the leading organisation, the SPA, is independent, not reliant on the state for political survival, and has much respect in Sudanese society. The SPA has also been able to leverage its links with the Sudanese diaspora, many of whom are professionals with influence in their host countries, as a means of amplifying the protests. The regime’s attempts to contain the protests by restricting the flow of information has thus been rendered largely impotent.

Protest leaders insist that their actions will remain peaceful, and, except for an initial attack on the offices of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), that guideline is being adhered to. Even JEM leader Gibril Ibrahim, while expressing full support for the protests, said his group will not provide armed protection for the protesters, arguing that the best protection for them was their insistence on peaceful demonstrations.

Wall poetry from Sudan

Slogan on a wall in Sudan: 'You resemble the night when tyrants die and the revolution wins.'

Bashir reacted to the protests relatively quickly, within a week after the protests began. He initially insisted that the grievances were solely economic, and argued that the government would institute measures to mitigate citizens’ suffering. Later, on 31 December, he also tactically criticised the use of live ammunition by security forces, and established a committee to investigate protester deaths a day later. This was his attempt to contain protests, position himself as supporting legitimate demands and to dissuade protesters from advocating regime change. However, he also sought to externalise the reasons for the protests, claiming that they were sponsored by foreigners, and proposing that elections were the only method of initiating political change. 

Although the protests indicate that the regime is facing unprecedented domestic pressure, Bashir’s position within the region remains strong, and his position in the international community has not been shaken much. By deploying troops to Yemen he has ensured backing from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which also want to ensure that Sudan does not become an Iranian ally. Simultaneously, he receives support from Turkey and Qatar. Relations with Egypt were mended in October 2018, while Bashir’s role in concluding the South Sudanese power-sharing agreement ensures support from regional heavyweight Ethiopia. Even relations with the USA have improved, with the White House in the process of removing Sudan from its list of states it deems as sponsoring terrorism. Ties with Beijing remain warm, and Bashir is an EU partner in the attempt to limit migration from Africa to Europe. Relations with Russia too are good, and it was Russian nudging that persuaded Bashir to visit Syria’s Bashar al-Asad, in an attempt to break his isolation from the Arab world. It is no great surprise, then, that the crackdown on Sudan’s protests have received little condemnation from foreign states, which, in the cases of Qatar, the UAE, and Turkey, have promised aid in fuel and wheat. Significantly, Russian private security personnel, likely sanctioned by the administration, are assisting Bashir to contain protests.

With this weight of external support, a likely scenario moving forward is Bashir’s withdrawing his candidature for the 2020 presidential election. Although the NCP endorsed him as its candidate, and Egypt is insisting he stands, the current protests, coupled with the fact that the 2005 constitution will need amendments for him to run for a third term, will render his candidacy increasingly difficult. The NCP decision caused schisms within the party and the military. Influential figures such as former presidential advisor Amin Hassan Omar and former National Security and Intelligence Services head Nafie Ali Nafie opposed Bashir’s candidature. They might use the protests to force Bashir to step down in 2020. 

However, it seems unlikely that there will be enough of a rupture within the NCP to ensure Bashir’s overthrow as an immediate response to the protests, especially since global powers are intent on ensuring regional stability. Events  on the ground may however change arbitrarily, as was seen in the 24 January protests in Port Sudan, where military officers clashed with NIS officials, forcing the latter to extricate themselves from attempts to contain the protests. If such intrastate tensions become more widespread, the regime will find it much more difficult to contain the protests. Significantly Al-Bashir instituted a minor purge within the military in September 2018, indicating that he does not fully trust the institution’s loyalty. All of this, however, does not guarantee the sustainability of the uprising. As the uprisings in countries north of Sudan in 2011 showed, loosely organised uprisings with powerful slogans do not necessarily lead to revolutions of regime change.

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