Tunis – Several thousand people marched through the main street of the Tunisian capital on Sunday, marking the seventh anniversary of the toppling of the country’s former president after mass protests.
But, for many people, this year’s commemoration of the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali turned into a protest against state austerity measures, unemployment and economic hardship.
Protesters chanted: “Work, freedom and national dignity” and “The people want the fall of the budget,” among other slogans, as they marched along Habib Bourguiba Avenue.
The government recently passed a budget law for 2018 that increased taxes and the prices of basic goods, including food and gasoline.
“Now we are jobless again,” said Amel Berrejab, 33, protesting with a group of university graduates who are unemployed despite having passed a national certification exam.
Berrejab said that while she has a master’s degree and several years of teaching experience in private schools, the state has not been able to place her in a public school.
“This is Tunisia seven years after the revolution. The government cannot give the rights to its people, to its young [graduates], so this is really sad,” she said.
Civil society groups and human rights activists in Tunis launched the anti-austerity protests at the start of January, under the banner “Fech Nestannew” (What are we waiting for?).
The rallies have since spread to several cities across the country and gained the support of the Popular Front, a coalition of leftist opposition parties.
A large contingent of Popular Front party members and a handful of parliament members marched on Sunday.
“There is nothing but poverty. Nothing changed since the revolution. Our revolution was stolen and the people won nothing,” said Rachida Gheriani, 59, a Popular Front activist who came from the northwest governorate to participate in the march.
“People’s daily lives have gone down and there is no longer a middle class,” she said.
Amani Abid, another Popular Front supporter, held up a yellow card during the march.
“This is the yellow card and on [January] 20 there will be a red card,” the 24-year-old said, referring to a protest planned on that date in front of the Tunisian parliament.
The Tunisian government has accused Fech Nestannew protesters of engaging in acts of violence and looting during protests, several of which have taken place at night.
But the government is under increased pressure to cancel the budgetary measures.
On Saturday, it announced plans to increase aid for poor families, including pensioners, by $70.3m, Reuters reported.
“This will concern about 250,000 families,” said Mohamed Trabelsi, minister of social affairs. “It will help the poor and middle class.”
The government also promised to provide better healthcare services.
The Tunisian army has been deployed around the country since the protests first erupted, and police were out in large numbers on roads across the capital on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Mohamed Beji Essebsi, the president, was in a poor neighbourhood of Tunis in the morning to ring in the refurbishment of a youth centre.
Police officers and members of the country’s national guard lined the streets of Tadamon in advance of Essebsi’s arrival.
The United Nations estimates that about 778 people have been arrested since the anti-austerity protests began, including about 200 young people between the ages of 15 and 20.
On Friday, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called on Tunisian authorities to not execute arbitrary arrests.
“The authorities must ensure that those exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are not prevented from doing so,” Rupert Colville said in a statement.
Amnesty International also accused Tunisian officials of using “increasingly heavy-handed methods to disperse rallies and subsequently arrest protesters”.
Despite this, in downtown Tunis on Sunday, citizens waved Tunisian flags and walked peacefully amid a large police presence.
Hassen Ghanem, a father of two children under the age of six who is unaffiliated with any political party, said while the revolution may have ushered in a new political system, it “did not succeed” in making a change at the socioeconomic level.
“The regular citizen is someone who has continued in the same suffering since 2011,” he said.
Still, Ghanem said he brought his children to the commemoration to show them that “if they want to, they can” make a change.
“I’m an ordinary citizen and I’m living through difficulties, but I have great hope that through my children, our country will have a better future.”