Unrest in Tunisia: A second Arab Spring?

Monday, 14 January 2019, marked eight years since Tunisia’s citizens ousted former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The Tunisian Revolution ended on this day in 2011, after nearly a month of protests against unemployment, inflation, corruption, and restrictions on political freedom. The anniversary comes at a difficult time for Tunisia, as the country’s continued internal struggles reached a boiling point last month with the self-immolation of Abderrazak Zorgui.

Revolutionary fire

Abderrazak Zorgui, 32, worked as a journalist and television correspondent before he set himself on fire in his hometown of Kasserine. In a video live-streamed on YouTube, Zorgui explained that he was committing this act to start a revolution “for the sons of Kasserine who have no means of subsistence.” He expressed frustration with economic conditions in Tunisia, saying in the video, “In Kasserine, there are people dying of hunger. Why? Are we not humans? We’re people just like you.”

Kasserine has long been a breeding ground for revolution. One of the first regions to rise up during the Arab Spring, its high poverty and threats from extremist groups make Kasserine’s citizens desperate for change. Chillingly, Zorgui’s self-immolation is far from unusual. Since the start of the Arab Spring, over 300 people have set themselves on fire and died in Tunisia, with an additional 2,000 having tried but failed. These brutal suicides reflect desperation in the country. Le Quotidien wrote that Zorgui’s act was “a sign of rejection of a catastrophic situation, regional imbalances, high unemployment among young people and the misery in which our fellow citizens live in the interior region.”

Zorgui’s actions sparked mass protests in Kasserine and in impoverished cities and towns across the country. In Kasserine, demonstrations turned violent, as protestors allegedly burned tires, blocked roads, and threw rocks at police. Security forces responded by firing tear gas at protesters outside of the governor’s office. Speaking on behalf of the Tunisian government, Interior Minister Hichem Fourati called on demonstrators to exercise their right to protest in a safer manner but acknowledged the reasons behind the demonstrations. Authorities have launched an investigation into Zorgui’s death, but the cause of the journalist’s death is clear to Tunisians: Tunisia is falling apart. Zorgui’s peers in Tunisia’s national journalists’ union stated that Zorgui died “due to harsh social circumstance and a lack of hope.” Tunisians are desperate as their once hopeful country falls into despair.

Failure of the Arab Spring

Tunisia is ostensibly one of the few real successes of the Arab Spring, having transitioned into a democratic system. With a solid constitution, relatively fair elections, and improving human rights, Tunisia seems on track to be the most credible democratic power in the Arab world. However, the reality in Tunisia is somewhat in contrast to these improvements. Particularly in the interior of the country, devastating inflation and rising unemployment leave living conditions unbearably poor. While the national unemployment rate sits at 15 percent, youth unemployment is at a staggering 36 percent. Voter turnout has decreased, and street protests are on the rise. The economy is struggling as a string of high profile terror attacks in recent years has decimated tourism, once a booming industry in Tunisia. Tunisians see their future as uncertain and their interests as unrepresented in the government. The party in power, the Nidaa Tounes, have failed to deliver significant reform and have led more of a conservative transition in Tunisia than a democratic revolution. While a flawless democracy cannot be built in eight years, the direction Tunisia is taking is not promising.

Among the government’s greatest failures is their inability to respond to the protests of their citizens. Speaking to The New Yorker, North African specialist William Lawrence of the Elliott School explains that, when faced with protest, the Tunisian government rushes to provide “stopgap, palliative treatments” rather than dealing with deeper structural issues and the true causes of revolution. Tunisia may even have its own version of the “gilet jaunes,” or “yellow jackets,” a populist movement for economic justice in France. The Tunisian “red jackets” were founded in Kasserine, and demand more job opportunities, better public education, and improved living conditions. The group has been staging small protests since mid-December, but further growth is conceivable. The Facebook page for the red jackets already has over 16,000 likes.

A second Arab Spring?

Last month’s events are eerily similar to the beginnings of the Arab Spring, almost exactly eight years ago. The self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in December 2010 was the spark that ignited violent protests across the Arab world in 2011. Zorgui’s actions bring about concerns for a potential second wave of mass protests in the Middle East and North Africa. If Tunisia’s government is unable or unwilling to improve conditions, revolution may burn again in the country. Revolutionary fire spreads easily, and young people disappointed by the outcomes of the Arab Spring are hungry for change. Tunisia is an important country to watch in the coming weeks and months. Even without revolution, unrest in the country has radicalized thousands of Tunisians and led them to join terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda in North Africa and the Islamic State. Between 3,000 and 6,000 Tunisians have already joined ISIS. Tensions in Tunisia contribute to instability across the entire region.

In Zorgui’s video, he said, “If at least one person gets a job thanks to me, I will be satisfied.” It remains to be seen if Zorgui’s final wish will be fulfilled.

Author: Julia Broomer

Julia Broomer is a staff writer at The Compass. She is a freshman majoring in International Affairs with a concentration in the Middle East and minoring in Arabic and Sociocultural Anthropology.  Her interests include counter-terrorism, social and political conflict in the Middle East and North Africa, and comparative cultures in the region.