For Tunisian protesters, democracy is not enough

Published in Tunisia
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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)

Last modified on Friday, 10 July 2020 11:08

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