Unresolved Discontent in Tunisia
On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze after a degrading encounter with Tunisian authorities. The horrific tragedy spoke volumes about the way in which corruption, economic issues, and repression have been affecting the Tunisian public. The effects are evident not only in Bouazizi’s actions, but also in the ensuing turmoil. His fatal act of defiance sparked a sense of anger and resistance both amongst his fellow Tunisians and throughout the broader Middle East.
In Tunisia, the initial rioting and protesting led to the ousting of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In doing so, the Tunisians achieved something monumental; for decades, the Tunisian state banned politics and avoided the inclusion of Tunisian citizens in its own public affairs. Ben Ali’s departure in January 2011 is still widely celebrated by Tunisians because, for many, it marked movement in the right direction, away from an unpopular regime that did not appear to prioritize the interests of the Tunisian public. Tunisians have, indeed, become more politically aware and have obtained greater political agency, a fact that’s playing a role in mulling tensions. Still, the economy continues to be a flashpoint.
According to The Guardian, recent protests were caused by an increase in the Tunisian value-added tax (VAT) which is applied to all goods sold in Tunisia. The increase of the tax from eighteen to nineteen percent as well as the implementation of a social contribution scheme were the factors that most recently incited the public. Such reforms were presumably implemented, in good faith, to both revive the economy and satisfy international donors such as the International Monetary Fund which pledged approximately $2.8 billion through a four-year loan program.
Although securing such aid is important, Tunisian discontent with the government is understandable as many Tunisians do not feel that their economic situation has improved enough to sustain the aforementioned economic reforms. Some activists have gone on the record highlighting the tangible implications of such continuous economic missteps. For instance, Heythem Guesmi stated that the latest budgetary plan “has made the rich richer and the poor poorer.” Guesmi went on to say that the increase in taxes and the cost of basic goods such as flour, telephone bills, and internet access have led to food insecurity for many families.
The latest protests have led to many injuries as well as arrests. As a result, the search for an effective resolution has increased in urgency. The Tunisian regime must appease its public while simultaneously satisfying international donors. According to Olfa Lamloum, Country Manager for Tunisia at International Alert, “the economic factor is central” meaning that “unemployment, the cost of living and inflation, poverty, [and] precariousness of labor” are the aspects of Tunisian society which must be targeted in order to successfully quell tensions. Lamloum notably relayed that the regime in power has two equally polarizing options: continue to repress the Tunisian public in order to deal with donors unconstrained or make concessions which would be unfavorable to donors. Simply stated, the situation has become increasingly zero-sum, and these challenging issues will likely not be resolved without great difficulty.