It was predictable, it was foreseen and it happened: Tunisia exploded from below on Monday, the 8th of January.
In all parts of the country, marginalised youths attacked police stations, supermarkets, authorities – tax centres, municipalities, governorates - and blocked trains, and clashed with police and the military, who made generous use of tear gas. A 43-year-old man, Khomsi Yafreni, was killed in Tebourba on Monday night and his funeral on Tuesday gave rise to further clashes. The Interior Ministry has denied that he was killed by the police. 800 "rioters" were arrested. The reaction of the government and the official media was lamentably unanimous: they did not speak of protests, but of riots instigated by thugs and bandits. "There are no protests at night", was the sentence issued by Prime Minister Youssef Chahedh, who promised that "2018 will be the last difficult year for Tunisia". We would like to believe it.
The smouldering fire was re-sparked by the enactment of the 2018 Finance Act, which raise the cost of living from 20 to 30%. Everything is increasing: direct and indirect taxes, VAT, consumption taxes, customs taxes, wage taxes. In short, an austerity programme in the purest style of the World Bank. At the beginning of the year, Youssef Chahed called upon the Tunisians to make sacrifices to correct the situation, taking the example of Portugal, whose Socialist Prime Minister, Antonio Costa, visited him last November. Did the two men not have access to competent interpreters? In any case, Chahed, like his media supporters, seems to totally ignore, that since the elections of 2015, Portugal, governed by the left, has put an end to austerity measures.
The justification for these increases causing widespread anger is the fiscal deficit. There are several reasons for this deficit.
Of course, there is the collapse of the tourist industry following the terrorist attacks of Bardo and Sousse. But this decline in mass tourism had already begun from the start of the 2010-2011 revolution. European tourist agencies began to discourage Tunisia as a destination, making more enticing sparkling offers: Greece where the crisis has slashed prices, and Morocco, whose stability was touted. Russian and Eastern European tourists have not filled the deficit of German, Italian, Belgian and French tourists. Chinese tourists are long overdue: the agreement concluded by the Tunisian Troika government and Erdogan's Turkey with China to bring yuan holders to both countries, never became a tangible reality. Terrorism has only accelerated the decline of a tourist industry focused on silly tanning in nightmarish concrete complexes that no longer attract Europeans, young and old, who increasingly aspire to "smart" tourism which puts them in touch with the real society of the country where they are going to spend their holidays.
There is of course the black market, which involves tax evasion and corruption. The "underground", "parallel", "black" economy, is no longer underground or parallel, it is on open street and is the only sector in growth. The media coup launched by the government at the beginning of Ramadan last year - a highly publicised "lightning raid" operation against some big shots of corruption - was nothing but a sham. Most of those arrested are now free once again. For Chahed it was a matter of sweetening the bitter pill of the so-called law of "economic reconciliation" whitening the "trabelsia", meaning the nebula of wheeler-dealers who had been linked with the "familia" of Ben Ali and his hairdresser wife, Leïla Trabelsi, to control any lucrative business with mafia methods.
There has been, of course, a plethoric increase in the number of civil servants, from 600,000 to more than 800,000 in seven years, which is not at all appreciated by the World Bank, which in the 1980s invented "structural adjustment" for the indebted countries of the Third World. In the meantime, this is no longer called structural adjustment, but the method has become universal, from the USA to Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland. But successive governments in post-revolution Tunisia have obviously preferred to respond to the massive demand for income of young people - whether they are graduates or not - by integrating a small part into the state bureaucracy - to better control them - rather than taking pragmatic measures to support initiatives for the autonomous creation of "third sector" companies, whether for traditional activities - agriculture, handicrafts, homestay tourism - or related to the new professions of computing and telematics.
But the main cause of this fiscal deficit is the taboo subject: the servicing of the country's domestic and external debt. The two bills proposed to the Provisional Parliament and then to the Assembly of People's Representatives from the October 2014 elections for an audit of the public debt contracted by Tunisia under Ben Ali, were never voted, not even discussed: they were filed then buried (Read Tunisia: filing of a law proposal establishing an audit of public debt). However, the servicing of this debt, which is in all likelihood odious and illegitimate, will rise in 2018 to 22% of public expenditure. External debt servicing alone accounts for more than 50% of the civil service total payroll. Regarding domestic debt, the implementation, last year, of one of the conditions set by the World Bank to continue lending money to Tunisia - to make the Tunisian Central Bank "independent" of the state - has made matters worse: the state can no longer make zero-rate and short-term loans to the BCT to fill holes. (Read En quatre jours, la coalition quadripartite au pouvoir a ramené la Tunisie en arrière d'un siècle et demi).
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Riots and looting are the response of the dispossessed to a situation that seems hopeless. From Kasserine to Siliana, Kelibia to Thala, Sidi Bouzid to Gafsa, people are tired of broken promises, ideals proclaimed but betrayed, gattopardism- "We will change everything so that nothing changes". They trusted the Islamists and the democrats, who betrayed them. They then put their trust in the supporters of the former regime, refashioned into "centrist" techno-democrats, who only disappointed them. The "radical left" has no more than a virtual existence and a practically flat encephalogram. The young people - who remain so until their forties - saw every door close: no more seasonal work in the tourist sector, no more emigration to Libya, no more escape by sea towards Europe - Frontex keeps watch!-, no more dream of heaven on earth between Syria and Iraq (which in any case had only attracted a small disoriented minority). Places are hard to come by in the foreign-funded NGOs, which have been filled up. Rioting remains the only option. In this January, riots prevailed again, as they did in January 1952, in January 1978, in January 1984, in January 2011.