Tunisia’s protests and the threat of repression – European Council on Foreign Relations
Social protest has been a recurring feature of Tunisian public life in recent years, but the ongoing protests in the country are more serious than in previous years due to their timing and circumstances. The country is reeling from a covid-19 epidemic that has weakened its already fragile economy. At the same time, internal political struggles made it impossible to decide on and implement the necessary systemic reforms. Finally, the protests and the harsh security response coincided with the tenth anniversary of the Jasmine Revolution, which has increased tensions on all sides and increased the risk of escalation.
While there is little Europe can do in the short term to address Tunisia’s economic woes or political dysfunction, the latest crackdown should prompt the European Union to refocus on the country’s security concerns. The EU has the power to call for state repression. In the longer term, the bloc should make a greater effort to help Tunisians reform the security sector.
The protests began in mid-January 2021. They started in the poor suburbs of Tunis but quickly spread to other cities. Protesters are primarily concerned about their long-term economic problems – including high unemployment, poverty, inequality, stagnation, corruption and high cost of living – as well as state crackdown and a recent lockdown. ad.
The police repressed on the protests immediately. Some of the protests were violent, with some protesters looting shops and banks, blocking roads, attacking public buildings, burning tires and shutting down businesses. In the governorate of Tataouine, demonstrators tried block an oil pipeline in El Kamour but the army prevented them from doing so. the severe security response – which involved the use of water cannons, barricades and arrests – sparked further unrest. As a result, Tunisia is the scene of violent clashes between officers and demonstrators reminiscent of the Jasmine Revolution.
While this civil unrest is largely driven by familiar economic grievances, it was catalyzed by the Prime Minister’s announcement on January 14, 2021 of a total four-day lockdown. Authorities said the lockdown was designed to control the spread of covid-19. However, some protesters argued that this was probably part of an attempt to avoid protests given that it coincided with the tenth anniversary of the revolution. The unrest that followed was fueled by the police crackdown on early protests, which protesters fear endanger their freedoms after 2011.
Protesters’ economic grievances have remained the same over the past decade, as the government has been unable to address the socio-economic roots of the 2011 uprisings. Tunisia’s economic outlook is even worse than that. ten years ago, because the weaknesses of its economy were exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
Indeed, the confinement that followed took LED economic contraction, increased unemployment, higher prices, increased poverty, slowing production and dwindling state resources. The government has created measures to alleviate these problems – such as tax exemptions, one-time cash transfers to informal economy workers, and support programs for vulnerable groups – but Tunisia’s administrative hurdles and economic realities are hampering success. implementation of many of them. Indeed, the still high level of the country budget deficit rose to around 11.5% of gross domestic product in 2020. Unemployment, which remains one of the main triggers of protests, has been higher in 2020 than it had been in the previous seven years, reaching 16.3% in the third quarter of the year.
The recent popular discontent is linked to an appeal by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to the Tunisian government to control the budget deficit by reducing spending on wages and subsidies, and by restructuring state-owned enterprises. Tunisian Minister of Finance ad that he would follow the IMF’s advice, while state media reported that the government was planning to cut working hours in the public sector in order to cut spending.
Tunisia’s difficult economic situation was further complicated by serious internal political disputes, which crippled the political process. Ideological differences within a deeply fragmented parliament, as well as between the president and government leaders, make it difficult to achieve political consensus on systemic reforms.
More recently, there has been a rise in tensions between President Kais Saied on one side and Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and Speaker of Parliament Rached Ghannouchi on the other. Ghannouchi, who heads the self-proclaimed “Muslim Democrat” Ennahda party, wants changes to the Tunisian constitution and electoral law that would give him a fully parliamentary political system. Accordingly, the part which wins the largest share of the vote in a parliamentary election (as Ennahda did in the 2019 and 2011 elections) would have full executive power and appoint the prime minister. The changes proposed by Ghannouchi would make the presidency a symbolic role.
In addition, the president and prime minister have been fighting for control of key ministries since September. The dispute between the two has sharp since Jan. 16, when Mechichi proposed a cabinet reshuffle without consulting Saied. The president opposed the appointment of several ministers and refused to swear them in, saying they were accused of corruption and conflicts of interest. Parliament’s approval of the reshuffle on Jan. 26 raised the prospect that Saied might decide to dissolve parliament, or that the pro-Mechichi parliamentary camp might try to remove Saied from office. On February 15, Mechici tried to break the deadlock by sacking five ministers and temporarily handing over their functions to other members of the government.
Internal political struggles in Tunisia are also complicated by the involvement of the powerful Union générale tunisienne du travail, which is aligned with Saied and opposes Mechichi’s pledge to sell state-owned enterprises.
As security forces clash with protesters, there is a risk that the crackdown – which has involved arbitrary arrests, house raids and police violence – will become more extreme. So far, the authorities have stopped more than 1,400 people, 30% of them minors, and there was one death. Some of the inmates are journalists, raising concerns about freedom of expression and censorship. In the short term, repression could create a loop of violence in which increased repression provokes further protests, which could trigger more repression, etc. There is also a risk of falling back into long-term repression.
To ease these tensions, the government will urgently need to curb the security forces. And Tunisian political leaders – especially the prime minister – will have to deal with recent incidents of police violence. First, they will have to state clearly that police brutality is not allowed. Second, they will have to to follow on promises to impartially investigate abuses, including the death of Haykal Rachdi. The government will also have to order the security forces to stop using tear gas in an excessive or indiscriminate manner. Controlling the police will be difficult as the security forces are backed by strong unions. However, in the long term, Tunisia needs to reform the security state.
Europe, one of the main financial and political backers of the Tunisian transition, can help the country solve its security problems. Tunisia has received highest EU support per capita of any third country. In total, this support amounted to € 1.9 billion in aid and € 800 million in loans between 2014 and 2020. Despite internal criticism of the conditions attached to EU financial assistance (such as austerity measures), Tunisia’s economic weaknesses continue to make it dependent on European aid. In addition, within the framework of the European Neighborhood Instrument, a priority sector of EU bilateral aid to Tunisia is the promotion of good governance and the rule of law. Consequently, European decision-makers have the leverage they need to criticize the police repression in Tunisia.
The EU can also help Tunisian policymakers craft a realistic security reform plan by launching a strategic and inclusive partnership around security cooperation that could benefit both sides. Through such a partnership, the EU could provide Tunisia with security training – as Member States such as France and Germany have done – while encouraging discussions on reform of the security sector. security. It is important to note that such a partnership should involve not only government representatives but also civil society actors.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications represent the opinions of its individual authors only.