Social unrest in Tunisia erupts in the face of economic crisis

Protests are intensifying in the Tataouine region, where unemployment is around 30%
Tunisian demonstrators confront security forces in the southern city of Tataouine, June 22, 2020

AFP/FATHI NASRI  -   Tunisian demonstrators confront security forces in the southern city of Tataouine, June 22, 2020

In the governorate of Tataouine, located 500 kilometers south of the capital, Tunis, the main economic activity is agriculture, since it has important fields for olive trees, vegetables and asparagus, among others. It also produces red meat and milk. On the other hand, the industry is incipient. At the moment, the region has 11 industrial companies, which employ 10 or more people, in the construction, textile and food sectors. In the government, there is also an oil field, El Borma, which has a production capacity of 14 million barrels.

However, among its population - some 150,000 inhabitants - it has almost 30% unemployment, twice the national average. The Tunisian Institute of Competitiveness and Quantitative Economy (ITCEQ), in a report published in 2018, had already warned that Tataouine was the region of the country with the lowest level of economic attractiveness, highlighting also in negative for its inability to absorb the job offer. 

Now, the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has further aggravated the economic crisis in the country - up to 20% of SMEs could go bankrupt - and, in particular, this southern region. The latest study by Oxfam Tunisia, which came out on 17 June, shows how inequalities within the country have worsened due to the outbreak of COVID-19. "The gaps observed in terms of education, health, poverty and infrastructure, and even access to employment, are constantly increasing between the coastal regions, where economic opportunities are concentrated, and the interior regions, which are not very industrialised and are accumulating difficulties," warns the organisation. "A resident of Tataouine, the region most affected by unemployment (28.7%), is four times more likely to be unemployed than a resident of Monastir [a privileged coastal area]," the report says. 

Los tunecinos exigen la liberación de los manifestantes detenidos frente al tribunal local de Tataouine, el 23 de junio de 2020
AFP/ FATHI NASRI - Tunisians demand release of protesters arrested outside Tataouine local court on 23 June 2020

For several weeks, protesters had blocked the roads around the remote El-Kamour pumping station to prevent tankers from entering the facility in a peaceful protest. However, on Sunday, the demonstrations escalated with tyres being burnt in the town and clashes with security forces, with stones being thrown at them, to which they responded with tear gas. The demonstrators were demanding the release of activist Tarek Haddad, a key figure in the movement, who had been arrested the day before as part of the protests. According to Tataouine governor Adel Werghi, Haddad was "wanted" by the authorities, and his lawyer has reported that he is accused of "contempt for a public official", "participation in a meeting likely to disturb the public peace", "contempt through social networks" and "obstructing traffic on the roads by force". His first hearing will take place on 2 July, AFP has learned. The interior ministry also announced the arrest of 10 people that day on charges of attempting to attack police stations with Molotov cocktails. "The situation is dangerous in our area. From the window of my house I see police forces randomly throwing tear gas and chasing young men," said one resident, Ismail Smida, in Reuters.

In response, on Monday, the Tunisian Trade Union Confederation, UGTT, called for a general strike in the governorate for "excessive and unjustified use" of force against the protesters. Public services and state institutions were closed, while shops remained open. Tension has escalated to such an extent this week that the country's Ministry of Defense has authorized the deployment of the army to try to stop the social rebellion. It should be mentioned at this point that new strikes have already been called for July 6 and 7 in the governorate of Sousse, on the Tunisian coast.

Sede de la Unión General de Trabajadores Tunecinos (UGTT) en Túnez
REUTERS/ZOUBEIR SOUISSI - Headquarters of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) in Tunis
What are the protesters asking for?

Tunisians in Tataouine are demanding the implementation of the agreements reached in 2017 with the government, which provided for an investment of 80 million Tunisian dinars a year - about $28 million - to revive the local economy and generate jobs to reduce the high unemployment rate. The demonstrators achieved this pact after three months of sit-ins in El-Kamour, during which they blocked the valves of the pipelines by interrupting the pumping of oil. Employment Minister Imed Hammami then declared that the agreement would be "beneficial for everyone, for the Tataouine region and for Tunisia in general". "The demands of young people will be met," the politician pledged.

However, three years later, the UGTT denounces that the agreement was never fulfilled. "Only part of the thousands of jobs promised have been created, in oil companies or environmental maintenance structures," reports France TV Info. "Faced with a deteriorated infrastructure that enshrines isolation and marginalization, the young people of the governor's office campaigned for years to get priority in contracting with extractive companies operating in the region and with subcontractors in the field. Several agreements have been signed in this regard, but all this was just a mirage," adds analyst Mohamed Ben Abderrazek at Tunisie Numérique. 

Vista general de la estación de petróleo y gas de El Kamour, en el estado meridional de Tatatouine, en Túnez, el 24 de mayo de 2017
AFP/ KHALED EL HOUCH - General view of the El Kamour oil and gas station in the southern state of Tatatouine, Tunisia, on 24 May 2017
Gap in the Tunisian government

The protests have erupted at a sensitive time in the country's politics. President Kais Saied, who was visiting the French capital, Paris, on Monday, was approached by supporters of the Tunisian protesters who were calling "Tataouine, don't give up". According to a witness, consulted by France 24, the president offered to receive representatives of the protests from the southern region at the presidential palace on his return. In an interview with the publication, the Tunisian president also asked the protesters to present "development projects" to him. However, he also used his speech to attack the government and said that the demonstrations "are the result of a failure to listen to the authorities" and that the response of the police, with the use of force, "was not the solution". 

El presidente de Túnez, Kais Saied
PHOTO/REUTERS - The President of Tunisia, Kais Saied

Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh, who is supported by the Islamist Ennahdha party, considered to be the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in the country, has been widely criticised for his handling of the pandemic and now also for a scandal involving a conflict of interest between the state and a private company he owns, to which he allegedly awarded two public tenders. 

The Ennahdha group is also currently at the centre of the controversy through the figure of Rached Ghannouchi, the party's leader and also president of the country's parliament, who has been accused of allowing external interference by other actors such as Turkey and Qatar in Tunisian politics, especially in matters relating to the crisis affecting its neighbouring country, Libya, which has been immersed in a civil war since 2011.

"Ennahdha seeks to influence certain decisions and I don't like being trampled on," warned Saied in an interview with the French channel. "There is a state, there is a head of state and there is only one Tunisian diplomacy headed by the head of state," he said as Ghannouchi publicly congratulated Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, leader of the Government of National Unity (GNA), for his military victory in Tripoli over the National Liberation Army (LNA). The president has always defended his neutral position in the Libyan conflict.