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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 September 2018

Ben Ali anniversary offers a moment for Tunisians to reflect

People would like the government to restore the old subsidies rather than apply new gloss on austerity

The ongoing protests against austerity in Tunisia highlight the precariousness of the country's achievement in 2011. Hassene Dridi / AP
The ongoing protests against austerity in Tunisia highlight the precariousness of the country's achievement in 2011. Hassene Dridi / AP

Sunday was the seventh anniversary of the fall of Zine Abedine Ben Ali, the former president of Tunisia, from power. Tunisians welcomed the abrupt departure of a man who had ruled their nation for more than two decades as an historic milestone, the culmination of the Jasmine Revolution that had drawn millions of people from the across the country in protest against an unresponsive regime.

Seven years on, Tunisia, a functioning democracy, is in many respects a sterling success story in a neighbourhood where similar mass protests rapidly degenerated into senseless bloodshed. But the ongoing protests against austerity in Tunisia highlight the precariousness of that achievement. As The National’s Gareth Browne reported from the ground in Tunis, the capital, on Sunday, a day earmarked to commemorate the triumph of ordinary people against their former ruler became an occasion for the airing of their deep dissatisfaction with the current government.

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What transpired on Sunday was not, Mr Browne wrote, “a demonstration of national unity for which the government might have hoped”. A short distance from the official celebrations, people gathered to demand the “fall of the budget” – a slogan reminiscent of the cry for the “fall of the regime” that echoed across the country in 2011. The anger on the streets is the product of the severe austerity measures contained in the government’s 2018 budget. As of January 1, the cost of food staples and essential utilities has rocketed, while wages have remained frozen and the subsidies on which so many Tunisians depended to make ends meet have been slashed. The government has responded to the rising anger by announcing a $70 million aid package for the neediest Tunisian families. It has also announced further reforms in the form of free medical care for all Tunisians and social housing for the poor.

These quick fixes seem unlikely, however, to satisfy the protesters, who would like the government to restore the old subsidies rather than apply fresh gloss on austerity. As one protester told The National, the government is “trying to buy us off, and not even for a good price”. Of course, the government did not adopt the new financial measures to punish the people, but in the week that Tunisia remembers the revolution that toppled Mr Ben Ali, now might be a good time to listen to them.

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