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Why do Tunisians keep protesting?

- January 19, 2018
Family members of Tunisians who died in the revolution seven years ago stage a protest on Thursday in the capital, Tunis. (Hassene Dridi/AP)

Another January brought another wave of protest in Tunisia. Responding to the government’s announcement of new austerity policies in the 2018 budget, protesters last week took to the streets in acts ranging from peaceful sit-ins to attacks on government buildings. The government responded by swiftly arresting hundreds of protesters, and palliative measures followed. Over the weekend, President Beji Caid Essebsi announced an increase in aid to needy families and plans to address the country’s inadequate pension and health-care systems.

We have seen this before. Perhaps more than an electoral democracy, post-revolutionary Tunisia is a protest economy. Facing the tumult of transition and an ever-deteriorating social safety net, Tunisians have expressed claims and grievances predominantly through demonstrations, sit-ins and strikes.

Over the past several years, I have collected data on protest events and officials’ responses from local newspapers in Tunisia. Since the January 2011 revolution, on average, nearly 30 protests and strikes have been reported in the daily paper al-Chourouk each week. As concerns over the constitution and the political balance between secularist and Islamist forces have subsided since 2014, a greater proportion of protests each year — by 2016, some 87 percent, as shown in this chart — have addressed socio-economic issues, including questions of employment and worker protections, the cost of living, and social welfare programs.

Many protests confront local officials with routine failures of social governance — wages withheld at a neighboring factory without just cause, a municipality’s failure to maintain passable roads, teachers on strike over underfunded schools. In about 15 percent of cases, protesters have negotiated with political authorities, sometimes coming to a solution that ends the day’s contention. Absent a robust and respondent welfare state, protests have become a routine — and occasionally effective — means of social negotiation between citizens, workers and public officials.

How can we evaluate the returns to social protest in Tunisia? Social scientists have long counted among the benefits of democratization the opportunity for great social equality. In theory, citizens empowered to vote in free elections will vote their material interests — meaning, a win for politicians and parties that promise to keep prices low and benefits high. More relevant to the current moment, democratic leaders facing social protest should be more likely to grant concessions in line with protesters’ demands — if not out of empathy than out of concern for holding onto their jobs come next election cycle.

In Tunisia, where the 2011 revolution coalesced around calls for social justice, citizens have yet to see significant progress at reducing vast inequalities of income and opportunity. Social dialogues on the national level, involving the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) and employers’ union UTICA, have fallen short of producing systemic reforms, and a 2017 reconciliation law offering impunity to officials implicated in corruption during former president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali’s era has further angered citizens, who view the law as a handout to corrupt elites at the expense of citizens’ social well-being. Partisan public officials have repeatedly derailed their counterparts’ efforts to negotiate developmental programs for Tunisia’s most marginalized regions, such as a 2011 plan for public reinvestment of phosphate profits in the Gafsa mining basin.

In the face of these failures, citizens continue protesting, and odd concessions granted on the local level act as stopgap measures to keep Tunisia’s streets clear and its local economies functioning. Yet analysis of the protest data shows that protests in the post-2011 era have been no more likely to gain concessions than similar protests during the Ben Ali era. Socially speaking, Tunisian citizens and their state remain at a stalemate.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, concessions have been most forthcoming — statistically, 75 percent more likely — for protests that use tactics of economic disruption, including sitting in on roads, occupying industrial and government buildings, or stalling the extraction of Tunisia’s mineral resources. Groups of protesters blocking phosphate transport trains in the Gafsa phosphate-mining region, where production has fallen to 40 percent of pre-revolutionary levels as a result of constant protest, have been offered public sector jobs in return for abandoning their barricades. Protesters who blockaded oil fields in the southern governorate of Tataouine for more than a month in 2017 eventually won promises for 3,500 local jobs and an 80 million dinar, or $32 million, fund for local development.

Another relevant trend concerns the question of who has protested most during the Tunisian transition. This graphic shows a steep post-revolutionary trend toward what Tunisian scholars call spontaneous protests — grass roots events not affiliated with any established civil society group. The phenomenon of leaderless protest took hold in the security vacuum of 2011, as citizens who had previously lacked a protective institutional framework for protest — such as the unemployed, historically barred from syndicalism — began to mount demonstrations. Yet the trend of protest disorganization has also overwhelmed public officials who often lack an intermediary with these groups. Demonstrations led by organizations with established channels for bargaining, such as syndicates of the UGTT, have faired much better. Union-led protests are 40 percent more likely to result in concessions.

Fiscal pressures on the Tunisian transition, including the country’s growing public sector wage bill and its negotiations with international lenders, have surely played a role in the country’s lack of broad social policy reform. But the politics of distribution are also inherently political. They reflect politicians’ calculations about which groups matter in the game of political king making and which have the capacity to bring down a government through crisis escalation; about how to maintain networks of partisans through select benefits, and how to thwart the efforts of rivals to do the same. Tunisia’s transitional leaders have repeatedly kicked the proverbial can down the road, favoring crisis-management concessions to break up roadblocks and accords with established syndical forces over a global strategy to redress inequity and endemic unemployment.

Tunisia’s leaders may publicly condemn demonstrations that derail production and threaten safety in the streets, as they have this past week, but they are also responsible for the incentive structure driving these actions. Social advocates and scholars have been quick to call this week’s concessions insufficient to redress the legitimate demands of demonstrators. We should expect more protests, and soon.

Chantal Berman is a PhD candidate in the department of politics at Princeton University.