Tunisia: Suicide of unemployed youth sparks new wave of protests

Five years after the fall of Ben Ali, demands of the revolution remain unsatisfied

Those who had attempted to bury the spirit of the Tunisian revolutionary uprising of 2010-2011, which at the time sent its tremors across the Middle East and North Africa, have been proved wrong once more. In the last couple of days, Tunisia has been swept by a new ‘intifada’ from its impoverished youth, fed up with a life of misery and mass unemployment. This is increasingly taking the character of a national revolt.

The protests started with a strikingly similar episode to the one which sparked the first flames of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ five years ago: a young job-seeker, Ridha Yahyaoui, committed suicide on Sunday by climbing on an electric pole after he was taken out of a recruitment list for the local public administration in the city of Kasserine, notorious for its abysmal levels of poverty and unemployment, higher than anywhere else in the country.

Even though the suicide of Ridha has been widely reported, his case is far from isolated; a considerable number of unemployed and desperate Tunisians, counting in the hundreds, have suffered the same fate since the overthrow of President Ben Ali in January 2011.

On the very same day last October as it was pompously announced that Tunisia would be the benefactor of the Nobel Peace Prize, a man burnt himself alive in full public display in Sfax, an industrial city in the southeast of the country. This highlighted the contrast between the celebratory tone of the Tunisian ‘success story’ amongst western media and politicians, and the daily reality experienced on the ground by most Tunisians.

Again this Wednesday afternoon, once more in Sfax, another man committed suicide by setting himself on fire, after the goods he was selling were confiscated by the police – a further echo of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Sidi Bouzid in December 2010, which ignited the first protests against Ben Ali’s dictatorship.

The lack of jobs has become even direr than under the old regime. According to a recent report by the OECD, 62% of Tunisian graduates are without work. The informal economy is for many a desperate outlet to try and survive. For unlicensed traders trying to put food on the table, life remains synonymous with almost daily police raids and the constant fear of being arrested or having one’s goods confiscated.

Nothing has changed

The feeling that nothing has changed since the revolution is widespread in Tunisia, in particular in the marginalised interior regions like Kasserine. There, the lack of infrastructure and investment is staggering, while the rates of unemployment and illiteracy are double those in coastal areas. People are tired of broken promises, political neglect and widening poverty.

The anger is enhanced by the fact that in Kasserine, the blood of the city’s inhabitants was massively spilled by the police’s deadly rampage during the revolution five years ago, but none of the martyrs’ families have obtained even a semblance of justice for the loss of their loved ones. To add insult to injury, Kasserine is bordering the mountainous areas of Chaambi, sheltering jihadists who have regularly made the headlines for their attacks and violent ambushes against soldiers and local people.


As the first youth were coming onto the streets of Kasserine demanding jobs and development following Yayahoui’s death on Sunday, the regime deployed its favoured weapon to deal with this kind of situation: state repression. All through 2015, repression has been the response provided by the government to the economic grievances of the poor and working-class communities. The fight against terrorism has notably given a cheap excuse for stepping up arbitrary violence against social movements.

Hence the police was promptly sent in Kasserine’s neighbourhoods to try and extinguish the fire. At the same time, the government decided to sack the first delegate of the governorate of Kasserine, in the hope of calming the situation down, but to no avail. On Tuesday, Kasserine’s regional hospital confirmed that 246 people were treated for tear gas inhalation as the result of clashes between local youth and the police.

The state crackdown provoked the opposite effect of what the authorities intended, enraging protesters further, and provoking a wave of sympathy for their demands in other parts of the country. Indeed, Tunisians everywhere are fed up with rocketing unemployment, the high cost of living, daily social insecurity and an increasingly aggressive police force returning steadily towards practices akin to the old regime of Ben Ali.

A curfew imposed on Tuesday (which has now been extended to the entire Tunisian territory), admittedly to ‘avoid any escalation’, was ignored by protesters who stayed out on the streets overnight. And escalation is exactly what the government got, with first the youth of neighbouring towns in the governorate stepping in, then, from Wednesday, demonstrations breaking out in various other parts of the country, notably thanks to the call made to that effect by the UDC (Union of Unemployed Graduates) and the student union UGET. Tunis, Siliana, Tahala, Feriana, Sousse, Sbeïtla, Meknessi, Menzel Bouzayene, Sidi Bouzid, Kairouan, Gafsa and Redeyef have been all rocked by street protests.

This attests to widespread and well-established anger: "Jobs or another revolution," young protesters have been reported chanting in Sidi Bouzid. Slogans and demands reminiscent of the revolution, such as ‘Work, freedom, dignity’, have been brought back on the table, and the movement translates into a broader political rejection of the government “Today’s events were more important than the last days in Kasserine. There were twice as many people than yesterday. It reminded us of the major events of 2011. The slogans have evolved into larger issues than unemployment among residents,” reported a local activist from Kasserine on Wednesday.

Weak government

A series of factors have contributed to build the present situation. One of them is undoubtedly the perception that the government, behind its façade of strength and police brutality, is increasingly weak and divided. The ruling party, Nidaa Tounes, a new instrument for many old regime cronies and corrupt businessmen, suffered a major split at the beginning of the year and was forced to proceed to a ministerial reshuffle in the aftermath. It has now a smaller number of seats in the Parliament than its main coalition partner, the right-wing Islamist party Ennahda.

Like all post-Ben Ali governments, the government of Habib Essid has not only failed to deliver on the demands of the revolution, it has consciously continued to implement the same old neo-liberal economic recipes that have inflicted misery on millions of working class and middle class families across the country. And the promise of President Essebsi, made under intense pressure on Wednesday, to hire 6,000 unemployed people from Kasserine will not fundamentally alter this fact.

While austerity and cuts in state subsidies have been on the menu for the majority, 70 Tunisian billionaires have a fortune equivalent to 37 times the national state budget! Seizing these assets and nationalising the main industries and banks would undoubtedly provide the state with a huge financial tap to massively invest in infrastructure and public and social services. A mass programme of public works, funded by such measures, could create socially useful jobs for hundreds of thousands of the unemployed, and could rapidly put regional disparities in the dustbins of history. But this kind of measure would require a dramatic shift in political priorities and a government ready to take on the vested interests of big business: a government made up of representatives of workers and poor, plainly dedicated to satisfying the revolution’s demands, in the same way as the present government is dedicated to perpetuate the rule of the capitalist elite and implement the dictates of imperialist powers and their financial institutions.

Working class

The social anger is widespread and a mass, generalized struggle is what the situation requires, involving large sections of the Tunisian people, as in 2010-2011. But an important conclusion that the development of our revolution invites to draw is the following: it was when the UGTT trade union federation decisively put its weight behind the movement, calling for mass strike action in several regions, that the fate of Ben Ali was sealed.

It was, again, the threat of a general strike that forced the bosses to recently concede a 6% wage increase in the private sector. This shows what the capitalists and their government fear the most: the implication of the working class in hitting at the source of their profits, by stopping work and paralyzing factories, mines, transport, schools, the administration and agriculture.

To avoid young people and the unemployed being left to their own fate in the present movement, workers should demand that a bold plan for strike action is urgently planned. Solidarity protests are important to start with, but the involvement of the labour movement is what could radically change the balance of forces in favour of those on the streets. For example, a general strike in the Kasserine governorate could serve as the first of a series of rotating regional general strikes, culminating in a nationwide 24-hour general strike. This is the kind of action plan that the leaders of the UGTT should suggest, rather than contenting themselves with gesticulations and ‘warnings’ to the government about the gravity of the situation and token calls for ‘national dialogue’, as they do at the moment.

If this does not develop, frustration at the lack of a way forward could lead some youth down the blind alley of rioting and violence as a release to their legitimate rage. In recent days, police stations, headquarters of the ruling party and other buildings representing state authority have been, in some cases, burnt down or targeted by rioters. In the town of Feriana, a policeman died after his car was overturned. Local defence committees could be set up to help in protecting demonstrations, to keep out possible provocateurs and to ensure that mass and disciplined actions prevail as much as possible. More generally, organising local action committees in neighbourhoods, schools, universities and workplaces will be instrumental in structuring the movement and ensuring its sustainability.

The lessons of the revolutionary struggle of 2010-2011 need to be studied and its best traditions taken up by the new generation who, along with their older brothers and sisters, are entering into struggle to fulfil the same, basic aspirations: the right to freedom, jobs and a dignified life.

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