TUNIS – A growing groundswell of youth unrest, tapping into a well of economic frustration, is sweeping Tunisia and worrying its leadership all the way to the top. It is, after all, the country that triggered the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions.
A third of the North African nation’s young people are unemployed — and many are angry about their stagnant fortunes. For the fourth consecutive day, they have taken to the streets in violent demonstrations across the country of 11.7 million -- from the capital of Tunis, to the cities of Kasserine, Gafsa, Sousse and Monastir.
The protests have led to a muscular response from authorities who fear a repeat of the protests that led to the ousting of strongman President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali 10 years ago. The army has been deployed in four hot spots. Here's a look at what is going on:
TUNISIA'S PROTEST MOVEMENT IS GROWING
Since Friday, protest groups that are growing in size by the day have been out in force every night. They are staging simultaneous, often-violent demonstrations in cities around Tunisia.
The groups have been pelting municipal buildings with stones, throwing Molotov cocktails, looting, vandalizing and clashing with police. The unrest is concentrated in poor, densely populated districts where trust with law enforcement is already lacking.
The army was called in by the government on Sunday night to quell tensions and protect the country’s institutions. Police said many hundreds of protesters have been arrested.
WHAT ARE THEY PROTESTING?
The precise causes are unclear, but the dire economic outlook of the stagnant North African country is at the heart of the dissatisfaction.
Carrying placards such as “Employment is a right, not a favor,” the protesters are angry over the broken promises of democratically elected President Kaïs Saied and his government, which hasn't been able to turn around an economy on the verge of bankruptcy.
Ten years after the history-making revolution, whose slogan was “employment, freedom and dignity,” Tunisians feel they have anything but that. A third of Tunisia’s youth are unemployed and a fifth of the country lives under the poverty line, according to the National Institute of Statistics.
Young people don't remember the repression under Ben Ali, and want job opportunities. They're communicating this common frustration via social media, like in neighboring Algeria, where a youth-led protest movement forced its longtime leader out of power in 2019.
WHY HAS THE PANDEMIC MADE THINGS WORSE?
The country's disparate lockdown restrictions and a nightly curfew since October to contain the spread of COVID-19 has exacerbated tensions.
The pandemic has especially hurt Tunisia's key tourism sector, once powered by its beautiful historic cities and white sandy beaches.
Flights have been grounded and potential tourists face lockdowns at home and a general reluctance to travel when contagious virus variants are racing through nations and continents.
HOW ARE AUTHORITIES RESPONDING?
Amnesty International has implored Tunisian authorities to use restraint in calming tensions and uphold the rights of the many hundreds who have been detained, but authorities have been increasingly reliant on the army for help and have used tear gas against protesters.
The Interior Ministry has justified the robust police response as necessary “to protect the physical integrity of citizens and public and private goods.”
Others disagree. The president of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, Abderrahman Lahdhili, said this approach “is not the most appropriate,” and authorities should instead be looking at the underlying “deep reasons.” Each year, Lahdhili said, 100,000 students drop out of school and 12,000 of them turn to illegal migration, taking to overcrowded smugglers' boats in a risky attempt to reach Europe. Others, he said, fall prey to being recruited by extremist organizations.
ARE ISLAMIST FORCES BEHIND THE PROTESTS?
Saied, the conservative president, tried to speak directly to the protesters by making an unexpected visit on Monday evening to see them in popular district of M’nihla, near Tunis.
He warned the protesters against extremist Islamist forces “acting in the shadows” who he claimed are trying to ferment chaos and destabilize the democratically elected government.
It’s unclear if this is simply a way to shift blame away from his government for the unrest, or if Islamist forces are really behind the movement. Saied himself is an outsider who won with support from moderate Islamists.
The leader of Tunisia’s influential Islamist-inspired Ennahda party, Rached Ghannouchi, has condemned the recent “acts of looting and vandalism."
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