January 22, 2018

‘You Can’t Survive Anymore’: Tunisia Protests Rising Prices and Taxes

‘You Can’t Survive Anymore’: Tunisia Protests Rising Prices and Taxes


On Monday, a week after the new budget took effect, protests erupted in more than 10 towns across the country.

In Tebourba, an ancient town about 20 miles west of Tunis, the capital, a 45-year-old man, identified by residents as Khomsi el-Yerfeni, died on Monday night during protests at which the police fired tear gas. Witnesses told the news media they believed the man had been struck by a security vehicle, but the Interior Ministry said in a statement that he had had chronic shortness of breath and that his body showed no signs of violence or of having been run over.

The air in Tebourba was still thick with traces of tear gas on Tuesday. Trash bins were overturned. Police officers were out in large numbers.

Akrem, a 27-year-old protester who declined to give his surname because he fears the police, said unemployment and misery were rife in Tebourba. “With 500 dinars a month” — about $200 — “you can’t survive anymore, and our salaries don’t go beyond 400 dinars,” he said.

The minimum wage in Tunisia is about $160 a month, and even a small family would realistically need at least $240 a month to get by, economists say. Inflation is running at more than 6 percent, putting further pressure on household budgets.

In Kasserine, Raja Jassoumi, 33, a project manager with a nonprofit, said people had to be budget-conscious even when buying a loaf of bread, “so when you announce the increase of prices on fuel and other goods, it is the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Khalifa Chibani, an Interior Ministry spokesman, said 44 people had been arrested overnight across the country. He blamed looters for the disorder.

“What happened had nothing to do with democracy and protests against price hikes,” he said in an interview on Tuesday. “Yesterday protesters burned down two police stations. They looted shops, banks and damaged property in many cities.”

Tear gas was also fired on protesters in the city of Kasserine. In Sidi Bouzid, the hometown of the Arab Spring, and in Meknassy, a neighboring city, young jobless people have been marching to protest the high cost of living and the lack of jobs. Several people have been arrested in Tunis and in the coastal cities of Sousse and Bizerte.

Protests are hardly new: In November, a mother of five killed herself by setting herself on fire in the town of Sejnane to protest her desperate economic plight. But public anger has festered anew because of the price increases.

On Tuesday in Tunis, young people gathered on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, a main boulevard and the site of large protests that in 2011 toppled the dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had been in power for 23 years.

Many wore T-shirts with the slogan “Manich Msamah” (I Will Not Forgive), an anticorruption movement that began in 2015. Others bore the slogan “What Are We Waiting For?” and the image of a ticking clock.

“Wherever you go, in a shop or in a drugstore, every price is higher,” said Wael Naouar, a protester. “It is impossible for people to live with dignity today.”

Olfa Lamloum, the Tunisia country manager for International Alert, a nonprofit that seeks peaceful resolution to conflicts, said she worried “that we have the same narrative as before the revolution.”

“The protesters in marginalized areas are portrayed by the authorities and mainstream media as looters or criminals,” she said, but they are expressing “a real social despair.”

Safwan M. Masri, the executive vice president for global centers and global development at Columbia University, and author of the book “Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly,” said the new protests were the latest manifestation of an age-old problem: “huge economic disparity between the coastal and interior regions of the country.”

He cited as a precedent bread riots that took place in the country in 1983.

“I.M.F.-mandated structural adjustments ignored such inequalities back in the 1980s, and they do so again now,” he said. “Successive governments have consistently failed to address this issue and to invest in developing the central and southern regions.”

Leila Ghrairi, 51, a civil servant who came to support the protesters in Tunis, said she was not worried about another Arab Spring.

“I don’t think it can lead to a new revolution, because we have still some hope that this kind of protests can start a dialogue with the government,” she said. “But the violence of the police needs to stop.”



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