To combat a ballooning national deficit, Tunisia, as instructed by the IMF, passed a new finance law in late 2017, introducing budget cuts and higher tax rates that went into effect on January 1 for the 2018 fiscal year. In response to these extreme austerity measures, countless protests have erupted in the past week, leading to over 800 arrests. Despite the wave of detentions, however, the demonstrations appear to have been successful. The Tunisian government announced plans to increase aid to the poor and improve healthcare on January 13, just days after the violent clashes, underscoring the sustained power of protest in Tunisia.
Beginning on January 7, scores of anti-government demonstrations erupted in at least twelve different cities across the country, demanding an overhaul of the austerity budget, an end to rising prices for basic essentials, and increased welfare protections for the poor. Many Tunisians felt that the austerity measures introduced in the 2018 budget were an attack against poor and middle-class citizens, as they cut public sector wages and benefits while allowing corruption among businessmen and corporations to continue.
Though the protests began peacefully, tensions quickly escalated when security forces fired tear gas at protesters in Tunis on January 9. In nearby Tebourba, only 40 km (25 miles) west of Tunis, one protester was killed during a similar confrontation. Interior Ministry Spokesperson Khelifa Chibani claimed that protesters had begun throwing rocks, blocking roads, and even torching state vehicles and buildings, prompting arrests. In Tunisia’s major cities, the army was even called to intervene, using tanks to protect government buildings, according to the BBC.
Abroad, many observers and human rights advocacy groups expressed concern over the sudden crackdown. As The New York Times reported, Rupert Colville, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called on the government of Tunisia to respect the rights of all detainees to due process. Tunisian researcher for HRW, Amna Guellali, cautioned against arbitrary detentions, warning that current events “should not constitute a pretext for a crackdown on social movements and activists,” according to The Guardian.
In the face of this international indignation, and having anticipated renewed protests to mark the seventh anniversary of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s ousting on January 14, President Beji Caid Essebsi held a two-hour crisis meeting on January 13 at the presidential palace to evaluate the situation. Essebsi met with representatives of different political parties and labor union leaders to come up with a strategy to quell the tide of anger.
Though Prime Minister Youssef Chahed had previously claimed the austerity measures were necessary to help the country overcome an extraordinarily difficult financial situation, Minister of Social Affairs, Mohamed Trabelsi, announced that Tunisia will increase aid for poor families and needy people by 170 million dinars ($70.3 million) only hours after the January 13 meeting. He also reported that new reforms would guarantee medical care for all Tunisians and provide housing to disadvantaged families, though more specific details have not yet been shared.
Though these proposals are likely to appease many of the protesters’ immediate demands, anger has been simmering among the general Tunisian population for quite some time, over poverty and high unemployment rates that have failed to improve since the Arab Spring. More enduring economic reforms are needed to bring meaningful change to the country, though protesters have once again demonstrated their continuing power to pressure the government to address their needs in the birthplace of the Arab Spring.