Protests continued in Tunisia on Wednesday, with police pushing back hundreds of mainly young demonstrators outside the country’s parliament, just as the latest victim of the current unrest has been named as Haykel Rachdi, from Sbeitla in Kasserine.
Rachdi died of his injuries on Monday night after reportedly being struck on the head by a police teargas canister.
Outside the parliament, protesters chanted refrains from the revolution of the winter of 2010–11 and anti-police slogans, while inside, politicians continued to debate whether to accept or reject a proposed new government, the fifth since 2019’s inconclusive elections.
Across Tunisia, civil society groups and people from marginalised districts are demanding economic development, an end to police brutality and the release of an estimated 1,400 people arrested in the disturbances.
Tunisia has been beset by political infighting and the police force remains almost entirely unreformed since the revolution that its own actions helped to spark.
Even before the pandemic destroyed the country’s vital tourist industry, Tunisia’s economy was struggling.
Unemployment – a key driver of social unrest – remained ingrained at around 15% of the labour force nationwide, increasing to 36% among 15 to 24-year-olds, a prominent demographic among those now demonstrating.
In Ezzahrouni, a marginalised district west of central Tunis, Nassredine described the poverty that drove the district’s youth to violence.
Declining to give his surname, he told how, despite his four diplomas, he hadn’t worked for two years. Instead, he found himself forced to rely on handouts from his mother, a pensioner.
“When I see people migrating [to Europe]illegally, I really can’t blame them,” he said, “Things are getting worse. Everywhere is closed now,” he said.
Despite being lauded as one of the Arab spring’s successes, instability has continued to rack Tunisia in the past decade, as its successive governments have failed to tackle the yawning gulf between rich and poor.
The latest reshuffle of the country’s coalition government included the appointment of four ministers accused of either corruption or conflicts of interest and was explicitly rejected by the president, Kais Saied.
This undermined any hope of the kind of political consensus Tunisia needs to weather the pandemic and make the systemic reforms protesters seek.
According to the International Monetary Fund, the country’s already moribund economy contracted by an “unprecedented” 8.2% in 2020.
The drop has been felt across Tunisia, but nowhere more so than in the poor neighbourhoods surrounding Tunis and in the hardscrabble interior regions where, even before the pandemic, unemployment was as much as 30%.
In these areas, with the pandemic having closed down opportunities for the type of casual day labour that kept many families afloat, anger over government inaction, aggravated by police violence, has exploded.
The Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) has estimated that, of the 1,400 protesters arrested so far, approximately 30% were minors. It said that few had been offered lawyers and none of those claiming to have been beaten were medically examined.
On Monday, a joint report by the online newspaper Meshkal and the blog Nawaat contained damning accusations of police violence and arbitrary arrests from the families of those now detained.
In one account, the mother of a 16-year-old described how she had arrived at the police station to see officers kicking her son around “like a ball” as they interrogated him.
The interior ministry has promised to investigate some of the abuse allegations, as well as a video that appears to show a police officer firing teargas into a house. However, buttressed by powerful trade unions, convictions for serving officers are unlikely. (Source: The Guardian)