A growing wave of unrest among young people, tapping into a well of economic frustration, is sweeping Tunisia and worrying its leaders to the top. It is, after all, the country that sparked the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011.
A third of the North African nation’s young people are unemployed – and many are angry with their stagnant fortunes. For the fifth day in a row, they took to the streets in violent protests across the country of 11.7 million people – from the capital Tunis, to the cities of Kasserine, Gafsa, Sousse and Monastir.
The protests have led to a strong reaction from the authorities who fear a repeat of the unrest that led to the impeachment of the strongman, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, 10 years ago.
The army has been deployed to four hotspots. Here’s a look at what’s going on:
What is the scale of the demonstrations?
Since Friday, protest groups that are growing day by day are in force every night. They organize simultaneous protests, often violent, in towns around Tunisia.
The groups pelted municipal buildings with stones, threw Molotov cocktails, looted, vandalized and confronted the police.
The unrest is concentrated in poor and densely populated neighborhoods where trust with law enforcement is already lacking.
The army was called on Sunday by the government to ease tensions and protect the country’s institutions. Police said hundreds of protesters were arrested.
What are they protesting?
The precise causes are unclear, but the dire economic outlook for the stagnant North African country lies at the heart of the discontent.
Carrying signs such as “Jobs is a right, not a favor,” protesters are angry at broken promises from democratically elected President Kais Saied and his government, which has failed to turn around an economy in the country. edge of bankruptcy.
Ten years after the historic revolution, whose slogan was “employment, freedom and dignity”, Tunisians feel they have everything but that. A third of young Tunisians are unemployed and a fifth of the country lives below the poverty line, according to the National Institute of Statistics.
Young people do not remember the repression under Ben Ali and want employment opportunities. They communicate this common frustration via social media, as in neighboring Algeria, where a youth-led protest movement forced its long-time leader to step down in 2019.
Why has the pandemic made matters worse?
The country’s disparate lockdown restrictions and a nighttime curfew since October to contain the spread of COVID-19 have heightened tensions.
The pandemic has particularly affected the key Tunisian tourism sector, once fueled by its beautiful historic towns and white sandy beaches.
Flights have been stranded and potential tourists face lockdowns at their homes and a general reluctance to travel as variants of the contagious virus roam nations and continents.
How are the authorities reacting?
Amnesty International has pleaded with the Tunisian authorities to exercise restraint to ease tensions and uphold the rights of hundreds of those detained, but authorities increasingly rely on military assistance and have used tear gas against the demonstrators.
The Interior Ministry justified the vigorous police response as being necessary “to protect the physical integrity of citizens and public and private property”.
Others disagree. The president of the Tunisian Economic and Social Rights Forum, Abderrahman Lahdhili, said this approach “is not the most appropriate” and that the authorities should instead look at the “underlying reasons”.
Every year, Lahdhili said, 100,000 students drop out of school and 12,000 turn to illegal migration, taking overcrowded smugglers’ boats in a risky attempt to reach Europe. Others, he said, fall prey to being recruited by “extremist” organizations.
Are Islamist forces behind the protests?
Saied, the conservative president, tried to address the protesters directly by making an unexpected visit on Monday evening to see them in the popular M’nihla neighborhood, near Tunis.
He warned protesters against extremist forces “acting in the shadows” who he said are trying to foment chaos and destabilize the democratically elected government.
It is not known if this is simply a way to deflect the blame from his government for the unrest, or if such forces are really behind the movement. Saied himself is a foreigner who won with the support of moderate Islamists.
The leader of the influential Ennahdha party in Tunisia, Rached Ghannouchi, condemned the recent “acts of looting and vandalism”.