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Marginalised Tunisians take to streets and sea

Almost a decade on from the revolution, civil society groups say not enough has been done to meet calls for social, environmental and fiscal justice.

Kairouan – Wahida Aydi became one of the first women to join demonstrations led by job seekers in front of a grey cement factory in Fej-Rouissat locality in Tunisia’s Kairouan governorate in early 2020. A university graduate, the 30-year-old lives with her husband, Mahmoud Khlifi (31), and infant daughter in close radius to the site.

“When the cement company came, we thought life would get easier,” said Mahmoud, who earns around 10 dinars (less than $4) per day selling stones. “But now it is very, very difficult,” he said, pointing to cracks in the walls of their house that expand with each detonation at the quarry nearby.

Tunisia has a population of 11 million and is widely regarded as a success story from the Arab Spring, which started with protests in the country and swept across the region in 2011. The demonstrations, which led to the ousting of long-time president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, were sparked by the self-immolation of a vegetable vendor in Sidi Bouzid, whose plight spoke to the socioeconomic marginalisation of the non-coastal regions of the country.

But as the 10th anniversary of the uprising approaches, Tunisians are returning to the streets to rally for jobs and development as nationwide unemployment levels reach a nine year high at 18 percent or 36 percent for young people.

Wahida became one of the first women to join protests in Fej- Rouissat in early 2020.

Spike in demonstrations and departures

Protests surged in November to 1,025 demonstrations, an increase of more than 17 percent compared to October, averaging at more than 34 rallies, sit-ins, or blockades a day, according to data collected by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES).

The organisation documented 7,610 protest movements between January and the end of November, most over socioeconomic grievances with the highest numbers recorded in the country’s centre-west.

The rallies have been met by Tunisia’s largest emigration exodus in almost a decade, with 12,776 Tunisians crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Italy in the first 11 months of the year, making Tunisians the largest nationality risking the sea crossing to Europe this year, said the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

The upshot in demonstrations and departures came as Tunisia re-opened to business and tourism after coronavirus confinement measures were lifted in June. The restrictions, which were partially re-imposed on 8 October as the number of cases reached 25,000, were successful in limiting the first wave of the virus, but not without damage to the economy, which is expected to contract by up to 6.5 percent in 2020.

Protestors in Fej-Rouissat, Kairouan.

But civil society groups said the crisis was brewing long before coronavirus closures, with successive governments failing to provide economic alternatives to meet the revolution’s calls for social and fiscal justice. According to the World Bank in Tunisia, the country’s economic transition “has not kept pace” with democratic and political progress.

Nowhere is this more visible than in the long-marginalized governorates of Kairouan, Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid and Gafsa, said FTDES spokesperson Romdhane Ben Amor.

“These regions were the cradle of the Tunisian revolution. Today they exemplify the failure of Tunisia’s model for development and the failure of the democratic transition at the economic and social levels,” he said.

Rural communities left behind

Fej-Rouissat is home to 3,500 people, but there is no running water. Locals said the depletion of their water resources, coupled with pollution from the explosives and fuel used at the cement site, has stifled their yield.

“They don’t produce like they used to,” said Mahmoud, holding up a branch of one of his olive trees.

Regional representative for the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, Salma Houberi, said cases like this are not uncommon, with social and environmental responsibilities largely overlooked in the industrialization of Tunisia’s agricultural regions.

“While industries and foreign companies could play a key role in creating employment and boosting the economy on a local scale, the reality has been different in Tunisia,” said Houberi.

According to the centre, the establishment of new industries has resulted in “more bad than good” with industries failing to create local jobs or meet environmental and labour rights.

Advocates said the carte blanche given to big businesses is part of the problem.

“If we return to the government’s regional plans for development, there is also responsibility vis-à-vis the citizens that isn’t well detailed. The result is clear: a region that was rich, has become poor. People who had livelihoods are basically begging,” said Ms. Saoussan Jaadi, Director of the Kairouan section of FTDES.

“We want sustainable development and social and environmental justice, not acts of charity,” said Jaadi.

But what protestors are most angry about is the lack of jobs. This grievance is shared by communities across industrialised parts of the country, including in Gafsa, where demonstrations by unemployed locals blocked phosphate production in September, forcing the country to import 1,000 tonnes of the mineral ahead of the agricultural season for the first time in its history.

Fej-Rouissat is home to 3,500 people, but there is no running water.

Migrating in search of livelihoods

In Fej-Rouissat, a group coordinating action for unemployed people said the population has halved as people leave to find jobs elsewhere.

“People thought the factory would bring employment, but it didn’t. We thought it would bring development, but it didn’t. And that is why we are leaving,” said Faouzi Kelifi, a representative from the group.

Tunisian naval patrols intercepted more than 215 nationals on 19 different boats attempting the cross to Italy on a single night in late September, following pressure from Italy to curb the central Mediterranean outflow which has resulted in more than 73 percent of the 998 recorded migrant deaths in the Mediterranean sea this year.

Italy considers the north African nation to be a “safe country” and Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio has said that all irregular arrivals will be returned. A high-level delegation travelled to Tunisia in late August, after Di Maio threatened to cut development aid until the crossings were halted.

Despite ramped-up surveillance, FTDES said between 150 and 170 families left Tunisia on boats soon after, as smugglers shifted tactics to use small boats that go largely undetected by naval patrol radars to reach the Italian islands of Lampedusa and Sicily.

FTDES spokesperson Mr. Ben Amor said that the profile of emigrants has shifted to include entire families most of whom originate from interior regions of the country and make the journey after first seeking informal work in coastal cities.

Kairouan locals say the country’s development has sidelined their livelihoods and well-being.

Tunisian President Kais Saied has openly acknowledged that the issue of irregular migration stems from economic and development problems. “It is time to reflect on the real reasons leading young and old alike to depart on death boats,” said the head of state in a speech on 2 August.

Repression adding fuel to the flames

Protests led by job seekers in the southern governorate of Tataouine came to international attention in July, after Amnesty International accused security forces of using excessive force.

“People are protesting because they’re living in difficult economic situations. Instead of beating and arresting them, the government should focus on addressing the underlying issues that have led people to come out onto the streets time and again,” said Amna Guellali, Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, in a statement on July 21.

According to Ben Amor, whose organisation has documented a number of occasions where clampdowns on peaceful protests have propelled an uptake in irregular migration attempts, the crisis will intensify in the coming months if protestors’ calls are not addressed. “When people are marginalised, unheard and repressed, it encourages migration,” he said.

[Photos: Margarite Clarey]


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