Tunisia: suicide protest and general strike

Summary: a suicide recalls the spark of the Arab Spring. One day general strike, government caught in the austerity trap. Security improved and tourism up.

On 24 December Abderrazak Zorgui, a 32-year-old journalist and cameraman, died in hospital in Kasserine, west/central Tunisia, after setting himself alight in a protest recalling the self-immolation of the street vendor Muhammad Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid which sparked the Arab Spring in 2011. He had posted a video online – . “For the sons of Kasserine who have no means of subsistence, today I start a revolution. I am going to set myself on fire” – expressing his frustration at unemployment and the unfulfilled promises of 2011, and calling for revolt. Protests turned violent, with police firing tear gas against stone-throwing protesters; six officers were injured and several people arrested. The national union of journalists called for demonstrations and a general strike in January, accusing the state of failing to crack down on corruption. Protests quickly spread to other provincial cities and Tunis.

Abderrazak Zorgui’s final video before he set himself on fire

A one day general strike yesterday 17 January (there had been a separate teachers’ strike already earlier in December) hit airports, ports, hospitals and other public services, with demonstrations in Tunis and around the country. The Prime Minister had said on 16 January “We proposed an important raise in wages but it was rejected by UGTT [the largest trade union], the nationwide strike will be very expensive but we can not give more than our financial capabilities”; the increase demanded would boost inflation and lead to more borrowing or higher taxes. Sources told Reuters that the government was proposing to spend about $400 million on pay rises, against demands from UGTT for $850 million, and that the public sector wage bill is 15.5% of GDP, one of the world’s highest levels according to the IMF.

UGTT say they will study further steps and will not back down, but have not given details of possible escalation. Slogans from 2011 chanted by protesters in Tunis and other cities called for the overthrow of the government. According to an article on the Al Monitor website the government relies heavily on IMF largesse, which sharply rebuked the government when it caved in to UGTT demands in September. But the Prime Minister faces Parliamentary elections in November and may feel compelled to capitulate if UGTT digs in its heels.

Regional development in Tunisia has been unbalanced, with areas outside the capital deprived. A 14 January Brookings article analyses the problem in some detail, and a second 17 January article considers the “migration to the North”, both internally from deprived areas to Tunis and externally from Tunisia to Europe.

On 12 January 41 militants said to be linked to IS were given death sentences, 39 of them in absentia, for an attack which killed 15 soldiers in 2014. According to a report in The National the courts continue to issue death sentences but none have been carried out since 1991.

An 18 December article in the Economist described the Tunisian Truth and Dignity Commission (known by its French acronym, IVD), a unique attempt in the Arab world modelled on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with the crimes of the past, mainly those committed during the 1987/2011 Ben Ali dictatorship. About 20 old cases have gone to trial, with 21 officers charged with murder in one notorious case, but there are thousands of others. What happens next is naturally highly controversial; many demand justice, meaning punishment, but according to Rachid Ghannouchi the veteran leader of al-Nahda (Ennahda) the moderate Islamist party in the government coalition, “For us, [transitional justice] is about comprehensive reconciliation, not punishment or retribution. It is about revealing the truth and encouraging perpetrators to acknowledge, and apologize for, their crimes and for victims to have their moment and forgive.”

On 3 January the Interior ministry said two militants blew themselves up in Jilma, 150 miles south of Tunis, after a shootout with security forces. They were said to be the leader and spokesman of the Brigade of Jihad and Unity, one of a number of Islamist militant groups between Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine, most of whose members were arrested last month. About 3000 Tunisians are estimated to have joined IS and other jihadist groups. Tourism which was hit by the attacks on holidaymakers in 2015 is recovering, with visitors in 2018 mainly from Algeria, Russia and Europe at 8.3 million and revenues at $1.36 billion, 45% up on 2017 and 8% of GDP.

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