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Tunisia's revolution endures behind facade of 'success'

Recent protests are about more than a lack of jobs or IMF austerity. They are a continuation of demands to end all forms of domination

Two weeks ago, Tunisian security forces used excessive force to try to stop peaceful demonstrators in El Kamour Tataouine, killing one of them. Six years after the 2010-2011 uprising, many Tunisians are wondering what is left of their revolution.

The fairy tale of secularists and Islamists getting along and reaching compromises brokered by two patriarchal figures does not match with reality on the ground

Distinguished by a Nobel Peace Prize in 2015, Tunisia's success since 2011 is often attributed to the consensus nature of its transition, with a coalition government that includes the Islamist party, Ennahdha.

However, this fairy tale of secularists and Islamists getting along and reaching comprises brokered by two patriarchal figures, President Beji Caid Essebsi and Ennahdha leader Rachid Ghannouchi, does not match the reality on the ground. 

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi (left) with Ennahdha party leader Rached Ghannouchi before signing documents that helped lead to the formation of a national unity government in July 2016 (AFP)

In fact, post-revolution Tunisia continues to witness social upheaval, with regular protests. For the past two years, demonstrations have continued to take place in response to President Essebsi's troubling obsession with passing an amnesty bill, which forgives the financial elite who fraudulently accumulated its wealth under the dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. But the protests are not limited to this single issue.

The extraction of natural resources in the south, a legacy of colonialism, has galvanised popular activism.

Decades of marginalisation

Protests grew two months ago in Tataouine with the announcement of a general strike, leading to the death of the aforementioned protester. Bordering Algeria and Libya, this most southern region of Tunisia is a vast arid land exploited for its natural resources.

The cyclical nature of social movements in Tunisia cannot be explained solely by the lack of jobs or in response to IMF austerity measures

Tataouine has been severely hit by unemployment, which was 32 percent in 2016 compared with 15.5 percent nationally. The population has lived through decades of marginalisation, and despite the revolution of 2011 their lives have not improved.

Empowered by the new constitution of 2014, Tataouinans found their voice. Drafted with the objective of re-establishing equality in marginalised internal regions, the incubator of the revolution, the new constitution stresses the importance of bridging the gap between the coast and the periphery, calling for the government to allocate revenue from natural resource extraction to those regions from which they were extracted.

Locals stage a sit-in outside El Kamour petroleum pumping station in Tatatouine in May 2017 (AFP)

Drawing their legitimacy from their constitutional rights, the local population denounced the extraction of natural resources from which they got nothing except environmental damage and water scarcity.

Despite the continued protests, political leaders are refusing to acquiesce to popular demands for greater transparency and improved governance. Similar campaigns last year calling for transparency in the oil industry fell on deaf ears, with President Essebsi and Ghannouchi both dismissing the campaign, which was titled "Winou el petrol" ("Where’s the oil?!").

Prime Minister Youssef Chahed supported urgent amendments allowing the government to escape parliamentary review of natural resources' contracts, thus eroding transparency in the oil sector. Biased media sympathetic to the old regime regularly accuses protesters of protecting black-market smugglers operating on the Libyan border.

The elite and the marginalised

Against a backdrop of discrimination, the middle class and well-to-do Tunisians, mostly in the coastal regions, accuse the activists of being unpatriotic and blocking the economy. But what economy are they talking about? An economy based on mining and drilling which destroys the environment for the sake of domestic and international capital?

Tunisia is polarised. But it has nothing to do with the supposed divide of secular vs Islamist Tunisians

Tunisia is polarised. But it has nothing to do with the supposed divide of secular vs Islamist Tunisians.

On the one hand, the elite in the centre defends the status quo and prefers forgiving the corrupt to sustain their current status and power.

On the other hand, the marginalised population in the periphery, which does not buy into the neo-liberal mantras they hear from the elite and international think-tanks, wants to recover its dignity. This polarisation is manifest in the Tunisian revolutionary buzzword "hogra," an expression of disdain for the periphery by a dominating centre, which has re-entered conversations in Tataouine and elsewhere in the marginalised interior and south of Tunisia. 

In February 2016, unemployed Tunisians sit at el-Mourouj park in Tunis after taking part in a 400 kilometres march from the city of Gafsa to Tunis to demand work (AFP)
The tragedy of the Soltani family, whose two sons were beheaded by militants within a year-and-a-half under the indifference of the government, exemplifies the state's presence in the region only in its extractive and repressive forms.

The answer to social movements goes beyond creating jobs, ending austerity measures, and going after the corrupt. It is about translating the objectives of the revolution into a new relationship between the state, the land and the people.

Tunisia must break free from capitalist logics based on the primacy of growth, and instead develop the conditions on the ground for the reproduction of life to flourish.

Heading the wrong way

But the ruling parties – "secularist" Nidaa Tounes and "Islamist" Ennahda - whose leaders' gentleman's pact behind closed doors is naively believed by some to be crucial to Tunisia’s stability - appear to be headed in the opposite direction.

In a speech on 10 May, President Essebsi declared that he will send the security forces to protect the extractive sector. The imposition of force to quell popular demands shatters the narrative of Tunisia as a success story of the Arab revolutions and confirms the counter-revolutionary orientation of the current government.

Chahed, cornered by revelations of Ben Ali's nephew during a hearing session at the Truth and Dignity Commission, and under pressure from the ongoing protests by the Manich Msemah movement, has rushed to jail a hand-picked number of corrupt businessmen.

Yet for many, this act was too little and too late, and, if anything, a reflection of intra-elite score settling rather than a true fight against corruption.

Tunisia's 'war against corruption' feels like a fake
Tarek Kahlaoui
Read More »

Natural resources have become the issue where struggles over revolutionary objectives converge. That is the reason why the cyclical nature of social movements in Tunisia cannot be explained solely by the lack of jobs or in response to IMF austerity measures.

These continuous social movements in Tunisia are the extension of the revolution, a form of sustained demands to end all forms of domination: neoliberalism based on the easy money of resource extraction, state patriarchy, the legacy of colonialism and racism.

Mabrouka M’Barek was an elected member of Tunisia National Constituent Assembly (2011-2014). She is a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Tunisians wave their national flag as they take part in a general strike against marginalisation and to demand development and employment on 11 April 2017, in Tataouine, south of Tunisia. (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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