'The citizen is tired': Tunisia's quiet class struggle against austerity measures

'The citizen is tired': Tunisia's quiet class struggle against austerity measures
In-depth: Three months after January's unrest, Tunisians cope with the government’s neoliberal policies and IMF’s austerity agenda that are noticeably hitting the country’s poor and middle class, writes Alessandra Bajec.
7 min read
20 April, 2018
Tunisian protesters take part in a gathering held by the anti-austerity campaign Fesh Nestannew? [Getty]
A few months into Tunisia's new financial year, austerity bites have hit hard and there is an exacerbating public dissatisfaction over falling living standards, deterioration in quality of public services, high unemployment and widespread corruption.

"Prices have all gone up but salaries remain the same," complained Samira who works at a clothes store.

"With what I earn I can just about cover my expenses for half the month, then I have to ask my family for help," she added.

Nizar, a greengrocer lambasted the high prices of food. "Since the revolution, it has all become very costly," he said. "I only eat meat once a month or sometimes less, it’s too expensive now." 

Widespread protests shook Tunisia at the start of this year for more than two weeks in response to the government’s announcement of its 2018 financial law, and against the terms set by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a four-year $3 billion loan. 

The youth movement, Fech Nestennaw? (What Are We Waiting For?) kicked off the demonstrations in January. The group – associated with the left-wing Popular Front coalition – was then joined by a range of different social groups, from the middle class to the most marginalised groups living in the country’s internal regions and poor urban centres.

"We were not in big masses in the streets," Fech Nestennaw? spokesperson Nawres Douzi said. 

"Most people lost faith when they saw the financial act coming into force, they felt the government wouldn’t listen to them anyway. We've had nine governments since the 2011 revolution – but nothing has changed."

We've had nine governments since the 2011 revolution – but nothing has changed
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Nawres explained that ordinary Tunisians did not have a clear idea of why they were out demonstrating or what they were demanding. "As they did not show interest, this cut off masses from the protests," she said.

Since its implementation on January 1, the new budget, which brought with it severe austerity measures, has generated increases in taxation, a general rise in consumer prices, the freezing of hiring in the public sector and decreased public-sector wages. 

These drastic measures deemed necessary for the government as it seeks to cut the budget deficit and control debt and inflation.

"The regime, with the support of its agents, has managed to divide Tunisian people. It wants to silence us so it can go ahead with the finance law and do what it wants," said Hamza Abidi, an independent political activist and philosophy student.

Back in January, over 1,000 protesters were arrested, while dozens of people were injured in the violent police crackdown, recalling the old autocratic rule’s heavy-handed methods. 

Taieb Henchir, a member of the New Generation Movement which stands for a new approach to the Tunisian left, argued that the state’s quick, heavy repression of the protests, in conjunction with the lack of political support, and the state media’s backing of the official discourse pushing for neoliberal reforms, made the large mobilisation of early 2018 die off.

"We've entered an era of financial imperatives dictated by domestic elites against the interests of most Tunisians – economic and social inequalities are wider than ever, the gap between the rich and the poor is clearly enlarging," Taieb said.

He is also a member of Maneesh M’sameh (We Will Not Forgive) a movement opposing the controversial reconciliation law that grants amnesty to officials implicated in corruption serving during former Ben Ali's regime. The bill was passed in September 2017 after the group, backed by opposition parties and other groups, successfully blocked it twice.

Tunisians are facing rising prices of basic goods including food, fuel and energy, higher purchase taxes, frozen or reduced salaries, as well as a drop in the state’s social payments such as welfare. They are already strained by the difficult economic conditions and their decreasing purchasing power.

Tunisians are facing rising prices of basic goods including food, fuel and energy, higher purchase taxes, frozen or reduced salaries, as well as a drop in the state’s social payments

It did not help when the Tunisian government announced a series of social reforms worth nearly $70 million to "help the poor and the middle class," according to Social Affairs Minister Mohamed Trabelsi.

The Tunisian citizen will have to spend an extra TND 300 ($120) per month to cover the rise in prices while salaries remain unchanged, according to estimates by financial expert Mourad Hattab, who predicts that 2018 will see the highest spike in expenses ever recorded.

The IMF approved an additional payment of a $257 million tranche from Tunisia's programme last month, urging it to go ahead with more reforms. The aggressive implementation of IMF-imposed policies has led to a stark rise in the cost of living, unfairly penalising the poor and middle class.

"Everything is more expensive, salaries have become valueless, people need to borrow money from family or friends since they cannot live on their monthly stipends till the end," Hamza Abidi said. In his view, the finance law is hitting the middle class more than those on low incomes. 

"The middle class is now affected very negatively because employees on payroll have their wages cut further due to higher taxes, whereas unskilled workers in the informal economy can get by on the small amounts of money they make," said Omar, a phone shop owner.

Today, Omar has to budget 20 to 25 percent more for his business expenses compared to five years ago. His life has more costs and less comfort than before.

"I used to travel twice a year for business and leisure, now I’ve stopped travelling. With my family we were used to eating out over the weekends, but now we rarely go out."

Things are slightly calmer on the streets since January, but the new year demonstration has shown that Tunisia is set to see new public protests as the coalition government struggles to reverse the growing discontent.

Tunisians hold a giant banner that reads 'For the fall of the 2018 Finance law' during protests in Bardo, Tunis [Getty]
Although Tunisians feel the harmful consequences of the austerity, they have little appetite for another revolution since they believe very little has changed since 2011

Citizens are frustrated at the failure of the consecutive government inability to provide jobs, improve living standards or deliver social justice for the past seven years.

Taieb Henchir expects that there will be increasing anger, particularly among working class people, however he believes it is important to channel such anger toward the right direction. 

"The opposition movement needs to be guided with the help of political forces in the left. They need to propose a viable alternative in the interest of the masses, including the most impoverished," he said.

"Members of the civil society, especially the youth and the left-wing parties need to unite around a joint fight and take responsibility," Taieb added. 

"We all need to stand together regardless of the ideological differences and reject the austerity conditions imposed on us. It will take time, but we feel that this unhappiness is going to lead to the emergence of a popular demand that people will bring back to the streets."

Although Tunisians feel the harmful consequences of the austerity, they have little appetite for another revolution since they believe very little has changed since 2011.

Nawres Douzi, who is also a member of the General Union of Tunisian Students (UGET), thinks Tunisians will start demonstrating in masses once they realise they will not be able to pay their utility bills in the coming months, as prices increase. Until then, UGET and other groups are reaching out to ordinary people to get them involved.

"The budget law is going to hurt the average citizen more, so we're waiting to attract the Tunisian mass this time," emphasised the UGET activist.

As the struggle continues, one thing is very clear – Tunisians will continue to speak up against poverty, unemployment and corruption through daily small struggles and resistance. For them, it is not the end. 

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec