A growing groundswell of youth unrest, tapping into a well of economic frustration, is sweeping Tunisia and worrying its leadership all the way to the top. It is, after all, the country that triggered the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions.
A third of the North African nation’s young people are unemployed – and many are angry about their stagnant fortunes. For the fifth consecutive day, they took to the streets in violent demonstrations across the country of 11.7 million – from the capital of Tunis, to the cities of Kasserine, Gafsa, Sousse and Monastir.
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The protests have led to a muscular response from authorities who fear a repeat of the unrest that led to the removal of strongman President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali 10 years ago.
The army has been deployed in four hotspots. Here is a look at what is going on:
How big are the protests?
Since Friday, protest groups that are growing in size by the day have been out in force every night. They are staging simultaneous, often violent, demonstrations in cities around Tunisia.
The groups have been pelting municipal buildings with stones, throwing Molotov cocktails, looting, vandalising and clashing with police.
The unrest is concentrated in poor, densely populated districts where trust with law enforcement is already lacking.
The army was called in by the government on Sunday to quell tensions and protect the country’s institutions. Police said hundreds of protesters have been arrested.
What are they protesting?
The precise causes are unclear, but the dire economic outlook of the stagnant North African country is at the heart of the dissatisfaction.
Carrying placards such as “Employment is a right, not a favour”, the protesters are angry over the broken promises of democratically elected President Kais Saied and his government, which has not been able to turn around an economy on the verge of bankruptcy.
Ten years after the history-making revolution, whose slogan was “employment, freedom and dignity”, Tunisians feel they have anything but that. One-third of Tunisia’s youth are unemployed and one-fifth of the country lives below the poverty line, according to the National Institute of Statistics.
Young people do not remember the repression under Ben Ali and want job opportunities. They are communicating this common frustration via social media, such as in neighbouring Algeria, where a youth-led protest movement forced its longtime leader out of power in 2019.
Why has the pandemic made things worse?
The country’s disparate lockdown restrictions and a nightly curfew since October to contain the spread of COVID-19 has exacerbated tensions.
The pandemic has especially hurt Tunisia’s key tourism sector, once powered by its beautiful historic cities and white sandy beaches.
Flights have been grounded and potential tourists face lockdowns at home and a general reluctance to travel when contagious virus variants are racing through nations and continents.
How are authorities responding?
Amnesty International has implored Tunisian authorities to use restraint in calming tensions and uphold the rights of the hundreds who have been detained, but authorities have been increasingly reliant on the army for help and have used tear gas against protesters.
The Ministry of Interior has justified the robust police response as necessary “to protect the physical integrity of citizens and public and private goods”.
Others disagree. The president of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, Abderrahman Lahdhili, said this approach “is not the most appropriate” and authorities should instead be looking at the underlying “deep reasons”.
Each year, Lahdhili said, 100,000 students drop out of school and 12,000 turn to illegal migration, taking to overcrowded smugglers’ boats in a risky attempt to reach Europe. Others, he said, fall prey to being recruited by “extremist” organisations.
Are Islamist forces behind the protests?
Saied, the conservative president, tried to speak directly to the protesters by making an unexpected visit on Monday evening to see them in the popular district of M’nihla, near Tunis.
He warned the protesters against hardline forces “acting in the shadows” who he claimed are trying to foment chaos and destabilise the democratically elected government.
It is unclear if this is simply a way to shift blame away from his government for the unrest, or if such forces are really behind the movement. Saied himself is an outsider who won with support from moderate Islamists.
The leader of Tunisia’s influential Ennahdha party, Rached Ghannouchi, has condemned the recent “acts of looting and vandalism”.