Photo: Amine Ben Aziza

Tunisia: protesting austerity, demanding sovereignty

  • February 12, 2018

People & Protest

The recent protests show that Tunisia is still a cauldron of popular resistance against neoliberal and neo-colonial attacks on the country’s sovereignty.

Around 800 people were arrested, dozens were injured and at least one person was killed in a violent police crackdown on the protests that rocked Tunisia for over two weeks in January. The protesters, who stemmed from a wide variety of social and economic backgrounds, took to the streets in response to the government’s announcement of its 2018 budget. A new round of harsh austerity measures are predicted to inflate prices of basic foods, fuel and energy and to further undermine crucial public services such as health care and education.

Compared to other mobilizations in Tunisia in the post-2010 era, these recent events had a much wider geographical spread, with people taking to the streets in sixteen out of 24 governorates. The January protests drew in a wide array of different social groups, from the precarious middle classes to the most marginalized groups at the bottom ranks of society. The protests were initiated by the youth movement Fech Nestennaw? (“What are we waiting for?”), which is associated with the left-wing Popular Front coalition, but they were joined by many other young people living in the neglected regions of the interior and in the poor neighborhoods at the margins of Tunisia’s urban centers, where the protests were most violently repressed.

So, what are the immediate triggers that led people to revolt? What are the underlying causes of this short-lived uprising? What framework shall we adopt to analyze the multiplication of protests, social movements, occupations and the intensification of discontent and resistance in the last few years in Tunisia? Should we be content with merely lamenting the fate of the 2010 revolution and how elites have treacherously managed that so-touted “transition” to the better days of “democracy” and “good governance”? What really happened to the promises of the Arab uprisings?

A neo-colonial market democracy

Beyond the immediate triggers of the 2018 financial law, the looming austerity measures and soaring food prices, there are deeper, underlying causes of this multi-dimensional crisis. Exposing these will reveal that the most recent protests are part of a protracted revolutionary process, with ups and downs, periods of radicalization, setbacks and counter-revolutions. This process has played an important role in the emergence of the masses unto the political scene, which partly explains the new vibrancy and dynamism of Tunisian civil society.

Ultimately, this is about Tunisians mobilizing against plans to derail their revolution; resisting imperialist domination and (neo-)colonial power structures; and showing their determination to continue their struggle and recover their sovereignty.

The country is being crushed by the weight of accumulated debt and its services, imposed on the country by the IMF and the World Bank — two of the Western powers’ main aides in putting their imperialist designs into practice. In 2016, the IMF agreed to offer Tunisia a $3 billion loan, and by 2018 the debt service will reach an expected record of 22 percent of public expenditure; a political and economic imperative imposed by sycophantic domestic elites against the interests of most Tunisians whose key demands are dignity and sovereignty.

It is no coincidence that this most recent wave of mobilizations coincided with the seventh anniversary of the toppling of Ben Ali and the start of the Arab uprisings that heralded momentous changes in North Africa and beyond. To some extent, the Tunisian experience seems to be the exception in the region because it didn’t descent into the chaos and the violence that has been haunting neighboring countries since. However, what is being pictured as a peaceful “democratic transition” is in reality nothing but a dynamic process to crush the revolutionary spirit of the people.

Indeed, the Tunisian “democratic transition” is but a euphemism for a “Western-sponsored transformation” to implement more of the disastrous economic policies that led the people to rise up and revolt in the first place.

The demands of the 2010-’11 revolution for dignity, bread, national sovereignty and social justice are being side-lined and ignored by the neoliberal elites that are wedded, more than ever, to the religion of the free market. These “comprador elites” are simple lackeys who are serving foreign interests by selling off the economy to foreign capital and multinationals and enthusiastically cooperate with the imperialist’s “war on terror” to expand their domination and aid their scramble for resources.

The ruling elites are dispensing with popular legitimacy and consciously turning their back more and more on the deprived interior of the country. They continue to offer one concession after another to the IMF and World Bank and are among other things planning to open up the interior to fracking, which will endanger the population and the environment by consuming huge quantities of water and polluting the ground-water tables. This is scandalous in a country that suffers from serious water poverty and has been witnessing recurrent droughts.

Despite a new article in the Tunisian constitution stipulating state sovereignty over natural resources, oil and gas companies continue to garner obscene profits and enjoy impunity for systematic corruption, while local communities shoulder the burden of the externalized social and environmental costs of this industry. It seems that every single government since 2010 is only interested in exporting the enormous profits they derive from exploiting the people and their natural resources. They are content with the preponderant role of multinationals in the economy. Take the edifying example of Shell-British Gas, which currently owns a full one hundred percent of the most productive gas concession in the country! This simple fact makes a mockery of their talk of sovereignty and democracy.

If that’s not enough, Tunisia is currently negotiating a deep and comprehensive “free trade” deal with the European Union: the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA). “Free trade” deals which are many things, but “free” is not one of them maintain a profoundly unjust international division of labor and perpetuate the domination by the centers of empire over the peripheries of this world.

The neoliberal doctrine of “free trade” combined with a blind belief in perpetual growth paves the way for corporate take-over and legitimizes the ongoing plunder of resources. This is neo-colonialism posturing as “market democracy”.

The mask of neo-colonialism

The brilliant analysis of the Algerian revolutionary thinker Frantz Fanon is as relevant as ever when we try to make sense of all this. He noted that the mission of this anti-national bourgeoisie has nothing to do with transforming the nation but rather consists of “being the transmission line between the nation and capitalism, rampant though camouflaged, which today puts on the masque of neo-colonialism.” Fanon predicted that these bourgeoisies would betray the masses, halt liberation and set-up a national system of tyranny and exploitation reminiscent of their colonial predecessor. This dismal state of affairs has not changed since the revolution.

Fanon, who lived in Tunisia at the time of the Algerian revolution in the late 1950s, would have been repulsed by this mindless greed. How can we go on submitting to imperialism and bowing to every folly in order to satisfy foreign capital?

The current situation of acute disenchantment cannot be dissociated from the ongoing efforts to maintain an oppressive status quo, depoliticizing society and putting the brakes on the potential radicalization of demands from below. The phenomenon of NGOization contributes to this agenda of disempowerment. While it is supposed to “empower civil society,” it ends up contributing to the creation of an artificial civil society which lacks any real political independence and is useful only for deepening the “marketization and privatization of the social”. I cannot think of a more eloquent quote to illustrate this, than what Arundhati Roy reflections on the same phenomenon in India:

Their real contribution is that they defuse political anger and dole out as aid or benevolence what people ought to have by right. They alter the public psyche. They turn people into dependent victims and blunt the edges of political resistance. NGOs form a sort of buffer between the [authority] and the public. Between Empire and its subjects. They have become the arbitrators, the interpreters, the facilitators.

The January protests in Tunisia express the accumulated anger of the masses at the anti-national and sterile elites that persist in ignoring the deplorable stagnation of the country. For the last seven years, young people all over the country were organizing protracted sit-ins, protests and occupations, halting the production of key industries — such as phosphate mining, oil and gas, etc. — demanding jobs, nationalizations, equal distribution of wealth, accountability and the end of the endemic corruption. The state’s failure to listen to these demands, meanwhile continuing to erode public services, is the result of a reckless insistence on applying the same neoliberal recipe for disaster, in all its relentless violence, that the Tunisian people have been fighting for so long.

Reviving the revolutionary heritage

In the midst of this catastrophic situation, the masses and the pauperized classes in Tunisia who refuse to despair and give up, have shown once again their resilience and their willingness to keep fighting for their rights. As in other parts of the world, they rebel, in inspiring ways, against a system that offers them only pauperization, marginalization and the enrichment of the few at the expense and damnation of the many. After all, it’s the masses that make and determine history; it is their decisive awakening that leads to revolutionary moments.

The resistance movement may lack political clarity and it may be in need of concrete, revolutionary alternatives, but its resurgence shows that Tunisia is still a cauldron of resistance to neoliberal and neo-colonial attacks on its sovereignty. Its revolutionary fervor, though weakened, is still alive. It lives in the ongoing struggles and resistance of social movements, the emergent revolutionary organizations, youth collectives, women’s rights associations, trade unions, the unemployed graduates, small peasants and marginalized communities in the regions of the interior and working class neighborhoods, away from bustling tourist sites. Together, they yearn for transformative change and justice.

The way forward, and let’s be clear about it, is to walk firmly on the path of decolonization towards a new liberating order, not for Tunisia alone but also for other subjugated countries in the region and across the global South. The end of settler colonialism in Palestine and the illegal occupation of Western Sahara — among many other struggles — cannot be disentangled from these efforts.

We need to rediscover the revolutionary heritage of the Maghreb, Africa, West Asia and beyond, developed by great minds like Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, Thomas Sankara and George Habash to revive the ambitious projects of the 1960s that sought emancipation from the imperialist-capitalist system. We can learn from experiences like those in Algeria and Egypt that wanted to break with the hierarchies, divisions and regionalisms imposed by imperialism and worked to build regional and international solidarities to challenge it.

Building on this revolutionary heritage and applying its anti-colonial credentials to the current context is of utmost importance in Tunisia and the region in general. The events taking place in Tunisia right now are a demonstration of people rising against the Manichean geographies of oppressor and oppressed, geographies imposed on them by the globalized capitalist-imperialist system. The struggle for justice and sovereignty continues.

Hamza Hamouchene

Hamza Hamouchene is an Algerian researcher, activist and commentator. He is the North Africa Program Coordinator at the Transnational Institute (TNI).

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