Tunisia’s young democracy is struggling with the economic fallout of COVID-19.
Rabat – Amid a health and economic crisis, protests have erupted in Tunisia demanding better economic prospects from their representatives.
People in the decade-old democracy are protesting their government by using a blunt yet effective tool: Strikes. Tunisia’s president Kais Saied has called the protests “anarchy,” calling on law enforcement to step in.
Strikes and sit-ins
Angry protesters launched a sit-in at the state-owned Gafsa phosphate company, grinding national production to a halt. Tunisians are wielding sit-in protests, which helped create the current democratic state in 2011, to demand jobs as high rates of unemployment linger in the country.
Strikes were a common feature of the 2011 revolution that toppled former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Since then, Tunisia has gone through the rough early stages of democracy as its representatives grapple with the reality of addressing the demands of their constituents. The government has failed to sufficiently meet those demands, leading to protests across Tunisia.
The Tunisian government extended its state of emergency on Wednesday to combat the spread of COVID-19, yet protests continued as frustrated citizens confront the country’s powerful elite. The protests have occasionally turned violent. The city of Jilma, in central Tunisia, witnessed violent protests as young people clashed with police and lit fires.
Yet strikes and protests are not limited to disenfranchised youth. Professionals such as lawyers and doctors have also launched protests, demanding better working conditions.
The national Tunisian Magistrates Union decided on Thursday to extend their strike, ongoing since November 16. The union expects a meeting on Saturday to resolve the grievances of magistrates who seek better working conditions and wages.
Journalists are also growing increasingly exasperated with the government, with Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi unwilling to publish a new collective framework agreement for journalists. Mechichi has stated he is working with unions to resolve the issue, yet many accuse the government of “blackmailing” journalist unions.
Shortages of basic commodities such as gas and subsidized vegetable oil for cooking have made life increasingly difficult for many people in Tunisia’s provinces. The absence of these basic necessities has intertwined with long-term fears of growing unemployment, corruption, and a general unresponsiveness of government.
In many ways, Tunisia is simply undergoing the rocky early phases of a democracy. Transitioning from an autocratic government to one responsive to citizens’ needs is a difficult and often frustrating process, where protests are an important means to express public grievances.
Yet Tunisia is experiencing this transitory phase amid a global pandemic and its economic fallout, which have intensified both grievances and protests. The country was again downgraded by Fitch Ratings on Monday, which now expects a negative outlook for the near future.
Tunisia’s technocratic government has attempted to step above partisan divides and political gridlock but is yet to meet expectations for economic growth and tangible improvements in living standards.
Protests are likely to continue in Tunisia, and political leaders like President Saied may have to get used to them. Far from “anarchy,” the protests and strikes are evidence that democracy is alive and well and that Tunisians will hold politicians responsible for mismanagement.