Civil Servants stage a protest in Tunis last month, demanding a rise in wages after the Tunisian Labor Party called for a general strike. (Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Cradle Of ‘Arab Spring’ In Flux As Massive Protests Rock Tunisia

The IMF has urged the country to freeze public sector wages and reduce the government’s ballooning deficit

Eight years since Tunisians toppled longtime president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in a revolution that effectively launched the Arab Spring, protests against the government’s economic policies are again being staged across the country.

The current demonstrations began after the government passed a law last year cutting public salaries and raising taxes on a slew of consumer goods as part of an austerity package agreed to with foreign financial institutions.

Thereafter, the Tunisian Labor Party, the largest opposition group in parliament, launched the campaign against Prime Minister Yusuf al-Shahid to end his mandate.

“The current ruling coalition, including al-Shahid and the Renaissance Movement, pose the most dangerous challenge that Tunisia has seen after the fall of the dictatorship in 2011,” Hama Hammami, Secretary-General of the Labor Party, recently stated.

Hammami called for a new leadership that “would put an end to the loss of national sovereignty, public freedoms and stop the bleeding of the general collapse in all life-aspects.” At the same time, he accused the government of “selling out the country and undermining the interests of different social groups to serve its narrow political interests.”

Meanwhile, the Tunisian government is under tremendous pressure from international lenders, particularly the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which have urged the nation to freeze public sector wages in order to reduce the government’s ballooning deficit.

“The Labor Party sees the government as a burden on Tunisia,” Nizar al-Makan, a Tunisian political analyst, told The Media line. If it responds to the IMF requirements, it will have to make drastic cuts to public sector institutions—the thing that the ‘street’ refuses.”

The proposed solution of privatizing public sectors such as electricity, water and transportation would affect the quality of services for Tunisian citizens as well as raise prices, he added. “In addition, it would weaken an already feeble ruling system.”

Al-Makan also pointed to black market smuggling and illegal industries in the country that are generating more than half of the revenue pulled in by the government. “These illicit activities are destroying the Tunisian economy and devaluing its currency,” al-Makan asserted.  He further stressed that “if the government had any policies to fight tax evasion it wouldn’t need assistance from any country or entity.”

By contrast, Tayyari Mayssa, a Tunisian political activist, placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Labor Party. “[The opposition] is the biggest obstacle standing in the way of Tunisia’s best interest. The economy is collapsing in all aspects and on all sides,” she told The Media Line.

“Who is going to take responsibility for the ongoing [workers] strike? The prime minister has provided the Labor Party with serious proposals to improve the situation, but that gang has failed to negotiate any kind of agreement. This party is unstable and facing a cold war of internal divisions.”

There are many political parties in the country, Mayssa noted, but “unfortunately they completely lack concern for Tunisia’s national interests.”

Basher, an Egyptian political analyst who asked that his last name not be revealed, explained to The Media Line that the protests are not uniquely the result of what he termed the “corruption dinosaur.” In his estimation, the government is not entirely at fault, as the economy has been hampered by a wave of terrorist attacks targeting the vitally important tourism sector.

Tunisia’s revolution was ignited when Mohammed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor, set himself on fire in the central city of Sidi Bouzid after being mistreated by police. His self-immolation brought many out into the streets to promote social justice.

At the time, the country was also suffering from high levels of unemployment, political corruption and overall poor living conditions.

After Ben Ali’s overthrow, various interim administrations managed state affairs until elections for the Constituent Assembly took place in late 2011, resulting in Tunisia’s first democratically elected government headed by veteran politician Moncef Marzouki.

In 2014, a parliamentary vote was held, with the newly formed secularist Nidaa Tounes Party winning a plurality of the votes. In November that year, Beji Caid Essebsi won the presidential elections.

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