Q&A: Tunisia’s social time bomb

Unless the political progress in Tunisia is matched by economic advances, social tensions will continue to boil over.

Tunisian researcher Lamine Bouazizi says the people who made Tunisia's revolution will not accept being victimised [Al Jazeera]

According to academic Lamine Bouazizi, Tunisia’s transition process has faced two crucial moments: the first when two opposition figures were assassinated in 2013, and the second on January 22, when violent protests broke out in Kasserine over a lack of economic opportunities.

Provinces such as Sidi Bouzid, Kasserine and Gafsa are a “social time bomb”, said Bouazizi, 47, who has done extensive research on the labour movement in Tunisia and documented the root causes of the country’s revolution.These cities were the first to rise up against Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, and the January 22 protests were the latest culmination of a citizenry asserting its rights.

Tunisia has imposed a nationwide curfew amid growing unrest over unemployment [Riadh Dridi/AP]
Tunisia has imposed a nationwide curfew amid growing unrest over unemployment [Riadh Dridi/AP]

Unemployment in the olive and fruit-farming region bordering Algeria is almost double the national average. The latest wave of protests suggests that unless the political progress in Tunisia is matched by economic advances, social tensions will continue to boil over.

Al Jazeera spoke with Bouazizi about the events in Kasserine and what this means for Tunisia’s transition process.

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Al Jazeera: Why did protests break out in Kasserine?

Lamine Bouazizi:  We need to understand the recent history of Kasserine. It is the first city that has embraced the protest movement that broke out in Sidi Bouzid on December 17, 2010, and transformed it into a nationwide revolution.

At the time, the Ben Ali regime struggled to contain the uprising within the borders of Sidi Bouzid province, as he did with the uprising in Gafsa’s mining basin, in southwestern Tunisia. In 2008, residents of the mining basin rose in rebellion, demanding their rights to employment, development and equitable distribution of wealth.

But the regime managed to contain this movement and abort it. Ben Ali wanted to repeat that same scenario in Sidi Bouzid in 2010. However, it was thanks to Kasserine that the protest movement expanded from Sidi Bouzid to other places and injected life into the veins of the revolution.

While political progress is being made slowly, however, what the political elite failed to understand, deliberately or not, is that this political progress was made at the expense of the social question of the revolution. When people rebelled against the status quo, their slogans, which remain inscribed on the walls of Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine to this day, testify to the original demands of the revolution. In Kasserine, they raise the famous slogan: “Jobs are our right, you gang of thieves.” This clearly indicates that none of the popular demands that people protested for have been achieved.

This was a cry in the face of the unjust development patterns adopted by the state. In some provinces, it feels like living in a past century – no services, no infrastructure or work opportunities – as if time has frozen at a certain moment in the past. Secondly, the percentage of unemployed youth doubled due to the privatisation programme of the public sector in the 90s.

Towns like Gafsa, Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid, or what we call “the basin of revolution”, have a record history of rebelling against rulers in different historic periods. Therefore, what is going on in Kasserine serves as a grim reminder that any new political structure that comes at the expense of people’s needs and sacrifices and does not respond to their demands is destined to fail. This explains what is going today in Kasserine.

Al Jazeera: But could such a violent wave of protest undermine the transition process and slow political progress?

Bouazizi: There are of course fears that the counter-revolutionary forces might capitalise on this legitimate social struggle, as they did before, to abort the revolution. This was clear when state buildings and institutions were vandalised and damaged. The logic of the revolution is taking over the institutions, not setting them ablaze. There is a big question about the identity of the culprits and whether it’s meant to distract the protesters from addressing the real issues at the heart of their struggle.


Therefore, we fear that out of those legitimate social struggles, we might be faced with an Egypt scenario, when some Bonaparte [an allusion to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi] would rear his head and try to capitalise on people’s legitimate demands by infiltrating the ranks of the protesters and diverting them from the real social question.

I wrote an article warning protesters against falling into the trap of what I call the Sisi/Bonaparte scenario, which aims to profit from legitimate popular demands, as  Sisi did in Egypt in July 2013, and sabotage the small political victories that have been achieved during the transition process so far. And in the absence of leadership, organisation and vigilance, the protest movement might be used to sabotage the political process.

Al Jazeera: Is this a possible scenario in Tunisia?

Bouazizi: I hope not. The worst that such counter-revolutionary forces did was in the aftermath of the assassination of Mohamed Brahmi in 2013 that – ironically – coincided with the military coup in Egypt in July 2013. That was the most extreme attempt to counter the revolution, because in Tunisia the army doctrine is not preoccupied with taking over the state, as is the case in Egypt.

Al Jazeera: What are the components of the protest movement in Kasserine?

Bouazizi: The social struggle that is taking place in Kasserine and the surrounding areas in terms of structure, organisation and the list of demands appears in many ways similar to what happened on December 17, 2010.  It is a horizontal uprising, and at the heart of it is the social question, where people demand job opportunities because it is a burning issue – especially among the young educated Tunisians who are aware of the political situation.

Al Jazeera: Tunisia is the only country where the Arab Spring did not end in disaster; do such protests reflect a failure of sorts?

Bouazizi: On a strategic level, victory has been achieved for the revolution. But on a day-to-day level and regarding people’s demands, there is simmering discontent. The average citizen is questioning the whole political scene. It’s true that we have political parties, TV channels and newspapers, but if we, as ordinary citizens, do not own them and if they do not represent our interests, what is the point? People say: “We are poor, we want work.”

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Al Jazeera: Does this mean that socioeconomic rather than political factors are the root cause of the problem?

Bouazizi: The social is political; we cannot separate the two. The essence of politics is the social question. What is the value of political action if it does not represent and reflect people’s interests? The social question, in my view, is at the heart of politics. People have entered the public sphere and became political. The revolution moment represented a conflict between the authority and the marginalised people muscling their way on to the political stage and taking over the public sphere. And this is the essence of being citizens.

I always believe that if the political progress is not reflected socially, this progress will remain fragile because only popular legitimacy can protect it. We might have a vibrant political scene of elections, freedom of speech and so on, but in the eyes of the people, it does not have legitimacy – and it becomes legitimate only when ordinary people can relate to it and have their rights reflected.

Al Jazeera: Is the Kasserine uprising likely to happen in other places in Tunisia?

Bouazizi: Yes, but it is wrong to assume that the rebellion has stopped in Kasserine during the past few years. There were multiple rebellions, but it only got media attention now. It is only normal that this social anger explodes. What is not normal is for it not to happen, because the political structure that everyone is praising came at the expense of people’s needs.

The people who have made the revolution will not accept being the victims in this unjust game of power-sharing. What happened was that the political arrangement was not accompanied by social arrangement, and people feel deceived. People feel they have made the success that is Tunisia today, so why then have they not benefited from it? That is the big question.

Source: Al Jazeera