Tunisian youth rises up against austerity again

The last few days have seen the beginning of a new movement of the Tunisian youth, almost seven years to the day after they overthrew the hated regime of Ben Alí in 2011. This time, a proposed budget, imposed by the IMF, has sparked protests around the country. Dozens of activists have been arrested and one protester killed. The “Fech Nastannou?” (what are we waiting for?) movement is a stark demonstration that having overthrown the dictator did not automatically solve the problems of poverty, unemployment and lack of a future that provoked the uprising in 2011.

At the end of December the Tunisian parliament passed the 2018 budget, which was drafted under instructions from the IMF. In exchange, the IMF had agreed to release a delayed $320 million tranche of Tunisia’s $2.8 billion in loans. The budget, described by the IMF as “bold” and “ambitious”, has as its main aim reducing the fiscal deficit to under 5 percent of GDP (from 6 percent in 2017), and is supposed to achieve this aim by increasing taxes, cutting subsidies and implementing a “comprehensive civil service reform”. On top of this there is also talk of increasing the retirement age and other attacks on the living conditions of the masses.

From the beginning of the year there were protests, mainly initiated by the unemployed youth. These have spread to at least 10 different cities in the most deprived regions, where youth unemployment remains at around 40 percent or above. Police repression quickly escalated the demonstrations into clashes with the police. The army has been sent to Kasserine and Gafsa, both strongholds of the uprising in 2011.

Dozens of activists of the “Fech Nestannew?” movement have been arrested for distributing leaflets against the budget and calling for protests. The image of the movement is a ticking clock. On Monday night a protestor, 55-year-old Khomsi el-Yerfeni, was killed in Tebourba, west of the capital Tunis, run over by a police car. That led to the protest spreading to over 20 cities with clashes with the police and the army. The geography is the same as in 2011 and all the different protest movements since: Sidi Bouzid, Kasserine, Gafsa, Sousse, El Kef, Thala, Gabes, Nabeul, Redeyef, Kairouan, Sfax, etc.

There is deep-seated anger at the ever-increasing prices of basic food products and the way in which the government wants the workers and poor to pay for the crisis. “At the time of Ben Ali, which we did not like, I filled my stand with vegetables, fruits and other items with 10 dinars, and now 50 dinars do not fill this gap. The situation has worsened dramatically,” said Fatma, a market woman in Tunis interviewed by the Guardian. “The government is sacrificing the poor and the middle class by raising prices and ignoring tax-evaders and businessmen.”

Tunisians have been protesting a new IMF imposed budget Image NawaatTunisians have been protesting a new, IMF imposed budget that will raise taxes, cut subsidies and 'reform' the civil service / Image: Nawaat.org

Since the 2011 overthrow of the hated Ben Ali (backed by Western imperialism and particularly by France) there have been recurrent movements of the youth and the poor. The removal of the old regime was triggered by a movement that combined economic demands (bread, jobs) with political demands (freedom). The masses rose up and through a series of mass demonstrations and regional general strikes, in which the youth played a key role, defeated the formidable repressive regime, which had been in power for decades. However, capitalism was left intact. The masses, particularly the revolutionary youth, feel they were cheated and their victory stolen. Once and again they have returned to the streets, but lacking a clear leadership, their movement has been defeated once and again.

The current government of Youssef Chaded is the result of an agreement between the moderate Islamist Ennahdha and the ‘secularist’ Nidaa Tounes (in reality, the new incarnation of the old supporters of Ben Ali). Thus, ‘Islamist’ and ‘secularist’ politicians are united in defence of the interests of the ruling class, while the people are suffering. To add insult to injury, the current president of the country is 91-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi: a man of the old regime who managed to occupy different offices in the state apparatus for over 40 years. The masses did not fight and die for this!

There is an appeal for new demonstrations in all cities tomorrow (Friday 12 January). If the current movement is to succeed it needs to link up the courageous struggle of the youth with that of the militant working class, but above all must adopt a program that links the struggle for bread and jobs with the aim of abolishing capitalism. Only the expropriation of the local capitalists and the multinational companies can set the basis for a democratic plan for the economy which puts the interests and needs of the majority (workers, peasants and the youth) first.