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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Tunisians spill into the streets to demand better living conditions 

Protests turn violent as drastic economic reforms fuel existing grievances 

Members of Manich m’samich protesting in Tunis on Saturday. Gareth Browne for The National
Members of Manich m’samich protesting in Tunis on Saturday. Gareth Browne for The National

Activists and the opposition in Tunisia have called for fresh protests to be held on Sunday, the seventh anniversary of the toppling of veteran dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The country has been convulsed by demonstrations since Monday with one dead, dozens of people injured and more than 800 arrested.

Nawres Douzi is in her early 20s and on the frontline of the fight against Tunisia's controversial finance law imposing tax hikes. She is the spokesperson for Fech Nestannew (What are we waiting for?) – a new youth movement.

Protesting runs in Ms Douzi's blood. Her father was a member of the Ennahda Movement, a democratic Islamist party while her mother was an active leftist who marched against Mr Ben Ali's regime in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Ms Douzi recalls protesting against an unpopular politician visiting her school when she was just 13 year old.

“We aren’t protesting for the downfall of the existing system – at least not yet,” said Ms Douzi. “We just want better living conditions, and to stop the privatisation of the government. A lot of people are already very needy, even in the middle class, this bill will make things much worse,” she added.

The Tunisian government is under mounting pressure from the International Monitory Fund (IMF) to reduce its deficit. Last year, the IMF agreed to a four-year loan programme worth about $2.8 billion with Tunisia, tied to economic reforms.

A controversial piece of legislation was introduced this year in an attempt to carry out these economic reforms.

The financial law reduces subsidies for basic foodstuff such as bread and pasta, among other staple items. Prices have also increased for fuel, while taxes on cars, phone calls, the internet, hotels and other items have gone up too.

The law also imposes a five year freeze on public sector recruitment, a one per cent cut to the public sector pay and preparations to sell off major public assets.

"The Tunisian people won't protest en-masse until they receive the first bill that they cannot afford to pay – we are trying to avoid that,” explained Ms Douzi.

While the majority of Tunisians understand the need for public sector reform, it is the drastic nature in which the measures have been introduced that has sparked anger and pushed Tunisians back onto the streets.

“You can’t just starve people at the expense of economics – it doesn’t work like that” said Zaid, a computer science graduate working at a coffee shop.

“I consider myself middle class and it’s becoming hard for me to survive, so what about the poorest? Let me say this, living standards are deteriorating, taxes are rising, the government says the price of staple goods is not rising – this is just not true,” Lina Ben Mheeni, 34, a blogger who was involved in organising the 2011 demonstrations, said.

But under the guise of night, some peaceful gatherings have turned violent. Looting and burning of state buildings has prompted the government to send the army into several cities and towns. On Tuesday, a Carrefour branch in one Tunis district was stormed and looted. On Friday a spokesperson for the ministry of interior put the number of arrests at nearly 800.

"At night, it’s chaotic, the movement is ambiguous," said local journalist Aymenn Abderrahmen, 29. "You don’t know who is leading what - is the looting happening out of frustration, or despair?”

"We're concerned about the high number of arrests...around a third of those arrested were between the ages of 15 and 20, so very young," UN human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told reporters in Geneva.

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The government insists that those demonstrating are thugs and vandals, with prime minister Youssef Chahed speaking out against acts of “vandalism” that “serve the interests of corrupt networks to weaken the state.” The Ennahda party agrees with this line, while activists insist that this is nothing more than a pretext for clampdown.

They point to the case of detainee Ahmed Sassi, a 27-year-old philosophy professor and leading member of the Front Populaire (FP), Tunisia’s leftist opposition party.

He was arrested at home and later charged with five offences including “promoting civil discord” and “vandalism”.

The night before his arrest he had filmed himself confronting raucous night-time rioters. "Go home, go to bed, tomorrow we will all protest together – peacefully”, he told the rioters. “He is no vandal,” Ms Douzi said.

So far, the FP has borne the brunt of governmental response to the protests. Dozens of their leaders have been arrested, and late on Thursday one of the group’s regional offices was torched. The office was located in the town of Larroussa, an FP heartland and hometown of the party’s leader Hama Hamammi.

“We will have to see if the FP roll over and take this,” said Mr Abderrahman inside a smoke-filled coffee shop in Tunis late on Friday night.

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Despite the widespread nature of the protests, with marches and clashes recorded in more than 20 towns and cities across the country, the movement has yet to reach the critical mass seen in 2011.

Activists believe that the key to achieving mass protests is getting the full backing of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), the country’s largest union and the winner of a Nobel Peace Prize for its role in the 2011 revolution.

With a membership of more than 500,000 that reaches across all social classes, UGTT has the ability to mobilise large numbers of people in street demonstrations. They also have the power to call for a general strike, bringing the country to a near standstill. A one day general strike called by the union in July 2012, is estimated to have cost the economy hundreds of millions of dollars, and saw Tunisia’s currency plummet in value.

So far, UGTT has been ambiguous regarding its stance on the finance law. Critics say the union's new leader Noureddine Taboubi’s closeness to the Ennahda party is the reason for this.

Ms Ben Mheeni is unimpressed with the union's seeming indifference: “if they are on the side of the people, they have to come out against the bill,” she said.

Saturday morning appeared no different to any other day in Tunis, with bustling trams running on time, open coffee shops and tourist buses parked along Avenue Bourguiba. On the surface, it was business as usual. But instead of tourists packing into the coaches, it was riot police. Uniformed and on call, ready to deploy at the hint of any gathering.

But grievances in Tunisia run deeper than a faltering economy. Members of Manich m’samih (We do not forgive) came together under the shadow of a statue dedicated to thinker and historian Ibn Khaldun.

They are the friends and family of those killed in the 2011 revolution, and they have campaigned vociferously against a controversial amnesty law that would see members of Mr Ben Ali’s regime released from jail. The law was passed last September, but the group continues to actively oppose and demonstrate against it.

Under Mr Ben Ali's police state even a peaceful gathering would have been prohibited. Today the small square is watched by as many secret police as there are protesters. Seven years after the fall of the regime, Tunisia’s seemingly democratic government is still weary of the power of protest.

In a bid to stop Sunday's protests, president Beji Caid Essebsi intends to spend the day visiting the poor district of Ettadhamen – a district he has never visited before.

Additionally, a government minister on Saturday said the government plans to increase support for poor families and needy people by some $70 million (Dh257m).

Zeina Haboub, 18, lost her cousin when he was killed in the 2011 protests by a regime sniper. “My generation got rid of Ben Ali, but they did not cut away the whole cancer, his regime and thugs are still present. I am here to finish the job. I will fight the amnesty, and I will always fight the regime,” she said.

For all the parallels being drawn to 2011, Ms Douzi warned: “this is not a repeat of the Arab spring, in the early days of 2011, people were just calling for freedom, work and dignity. It was only when the government responded with fire that people decided Ben Ali had to go.”

“The government should pay attention to that,” she warned.

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