North Africa, West Asia

For Tunisian protesters, democracy is not enough

If youth grievances continue to fester in the country’s marginalized regions, any captivation with a hard won democracy that is left may fade.

Larbi Sadiki
8 July 2020
Writing on the car reads 'Al Rakh La' - the slogan of the ongoing protests in Tunisia's South, meaning 'no to giving up'
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Facebook - @elkamour

Since, 2017 Tunisia’s interior and South have witnessed a wave of ongoing protests, the slogan, “al-rakh la”, meaning no to giving up.

These protests test the endurance 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 marginalization.

As the Tunisian government celebrated its “victory” over the spread of COVID-19 in on 25 June, protestors in Tataouine, at the southern tip of the country, sounded a different note: Jubilation over the release of the Kamour hirak’s detainees did not prevent the activists from getting back to business.

The Kamour Hirak is a three-year-old protest in Tunisia’s southern province of Tataouine, focused on claims of jobs in the oil and gas fields in the area as well as on share of funds from the hydrocarbon industry to be earmarked for local development. This loose group of activists mostly relies on employment in the southern and region’s oilfields. They are demanding jobs and investments as part of a regional development fund, promised to them under a 2017 agreement with Youcef Chahed’s government.

Sustained protest

The Kamour protests did not explode 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 since late 2010 and 2011 when former president Ben Ali was ousted. Multiple marginalization is still the common incubator of the protests.

These protests are reminders of several interconnected issues. First, policy inertia when it comes to youth unemployment and regional marginalization as festering problems 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 marginals of the south and centre. Last, the coercive apparatus’s reaction against all these protests shows that old habits die hard: escalation of police tactics when politics fails.

The Kamour protests did not explode in a vacuum. They must be situated within the context of more than fifteen years of revolutionary action in the phosphate basin

Recent weeks have seen the escalation of protests in Tataouine as the working class ups the ante. To a certain extent, Tansiqiyyat al-Kamour is a newer movement that mirrors persistent unrest in Gafsa’s phosphate basin. Protests and sit-ins have disrupted phosphate production for years, recently announced as 27.5% 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 storied phosphate basin events of 2008. Now, they are wrangling with the newly democratic state. This includes a stumbling transitional justice legal process for past crackdowns. Importantly, demands by Gafsa’s marginalized have not changed much, pre- and post-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 freedom of the 2011 uprising. Protests erupt periodically in the long-marginalized south of the country, with its well-known history of state neglect since formal independence in 1956. Tunisia’s politicians may declare rightly that COVID-19 exposed deep social inequality in the country, but economic and social exclusion are not news to those suffering from 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 being the birthplace of the 2010/2011 uprising), among other interior and southern regions.

Economic and social exclusion are not news to those suffering from deprivation in the South

Kamour’s latest escalation is but one manifestation of a long-simmering discontent accompanied by feelings of discrimination in broad segments of the country. The richer Sahel (coast), including the capital and surrounding areas is almost a world away. The democratic ‘pill’ may have since 2011 quelled some of the indignation among Tunisia’s marginal areas, 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 over well. Some citizens still feel unseen and unheard. “These events were painful,” said Khalifah Bohoush, a member of Tansiqiyyat Al-Kamour, complaining that the government had violated protestors’ “dignity.”

We felt insult…[after] we chanted thawrah (revolution), in one voice with all Tunisians!” As though 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. As though the country’s North is somehow more deserving of wealth and government attention than the South’s forgotten and restless youth.

Democratization has raised the expectations of unemployed youth seeking jobs, and of poverty-stricken families. They await the distributive responsibilities of the state, as well as 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 are 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 MPs and presidents into office is not an end in itself. Officials are elected to represent constituents’ demands. In this case, the implementation of a 3-year old agreement guaranteeing 1500 jobs in oil companies (for instance, in the new Nawara plant), and 500 landscape/agricultural jobs, and TND 80 million a year for a regional development fund in Tataouine.

Democratization has raised the expectations of unemployed youth seeking jobs, and of poverty-stricken families

Democratic ethos and practice furnish the framework for constant dialogue between state and society, voters and officials. Reverting to old, Ben Ali-era tactics that long gave the Interior Ministry a bad name in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world does not square well with democratization.

At this democratic moment, Tunisia finds itself doubly besieged. Internally, Elyes Fakhfakh’s government faces the challenge of the hirak and the youth stubbornly hanging onto (signed) government pledges to deliver the goods, as it were. A cabinet meeting late last week discussed the original pledge, inching closer to meeting the Kamour protesters’ demands for jobs. The embattled PM is also busy with a burgeoning ‘conflict of interests’ scandal. Externally, Tunisia is deeper in debt than ever before. A perfunctory calculation of debt accumulated just during the past months of the COVID-19 crisis quickly tallies up to more than a USD 1 billion.

Who is going to pay back these loans, and where is this COVID-19 assistance going? Ultimately, democracy creates openings for solving people’s problems, particularly when opportunities arise. The epidemic was one such opportunity. These latest protests in the interior and the south are another. If youth grievances continue to fester in the country’s marginalized (and border) regions, any captivation with democracy that is left 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. Gafsa’s indignants failed to secure even such mediation.

This government seems to follow a policy of delay and decay. That is, deferring distributive justice and sinking in political paralysis. The new president, Kais Saeid seemed to act proactively by meeting with the Kamour protesters. However, not much has materialized since that encounter. Instead, he has just secured the country’s latest loan instalment: $350 million from the French on a recent trip. In so doing, he stained his blundering media tour by contending in an interview on France24 that French rule in Tunisia was a protectorate) and not an occupation. Tunisia was not colonized the way Algeria was, he insisted. More royal than the king, in one word Saeid re-wrote and erased 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 implies power—always. It is tactless and jarring that a sitting Tunisian president would reproduce the linguistic understatements of colonial discourse, underpinning decades of physical and cultural violence. Kais Saeid revealed not just his lack of sophistication but an aloofness from Tunisian society. He demonstrated a willingness for whatever reason to verbally violate givens of a multi-vocal Tunisian identity whose very post-coloniality was forged in sacrifices of life and limb, for the sake of freedom.

Perhaps the president should go back and read 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 Bourgiba, to name a few, who struggled, wrote, organized, and fought against colonialism. All this aside, even more damaging to Saeid’s plausibility has been his foot-dragging in making good on his promise to the Kamour youth whom he met back in January.

A distracted parliament

Parliamentary mayhem epitomized in June’s “battle of the petitions” including one on June 9 sponsored by the Dignity Coalition demanding an apology from France for its colonial crimes. What is missing is 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 polarization, and a willingness to turn Parliament into a new battleground for region-wide conflicts in its televised session.

It remains up to Tunisia’s political power-holders, the controllers of its purse strings, to activate the country’s impressive democratic toolkit

Parliamentary deliberation has ceded to ‘petitioning’ by constantly bickering political parties and coalitions. By seeking to issue final judgements on history (e.g. Bourguiba’s legacy) or to position themselves vis-à-vis regional discord (e.g. pro- or anti-Turkey and the conflict in Libya), MPs are simply spouting too much ideology. This intensifies polarization, to put it mildly. Such raucousness in the legislature distracts and detracts from the very 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 Tunisia’s political power-holders, 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 toward 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 disturbance 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 taking them seriously.

Thinking ahead: researching protests

From an epistemological angle, Tunisian and other Arab protests push 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 marginals and protesters?). In Tunisia, the biggest gain of the 2011 uprising is freedom. Freedom, however, begets more freedom, reinforcing 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 another they are conditioned by local concerns related to specific socio-political 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!

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