The north African nation of Tunisia has seen days of raucous protests by young people frustrated over years of economic stagnation, police brutality and months of lockdowns to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
The protest has led to at least 632 arrests and days of confrontations between police and protesters, stretching from the most famous street of Tunis to hardscrabble hinterland towns such as Kasserine and Gafsa. No deaths have been reported, but there have been injuries and property damage.
The aims of the protests, which have mostly taken place at night, remain unclear. No one appears to be leading them and none of the country’s major political parties have endorsed them, though some labour leaders endorsed vague calls by protesters for economic change and human rights, while civil rights groups have voiced support for their demands to hold police accountable.
The protests coincide with the 10th anniversary of the month-long revolution that toppled the country’s longtime dictator, Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali. His demise, sparked by a fruit vendor’s self-immolation on 17 December 2010 in the town of Sidi Bouzid, initiated a new era of political freedoms but failed to improve the country’s economy. Tunisia suffers from anemic growth, festering youth unemployment, and stagnant wages.
Anger over economic woes and perceived abuses by security forces had been building for months before the current protests. Images of police stuffing rowdy youths into vans following a 9 January football match in Tunis outraged many and evoked memories of abuses under Ben Ali.
Then violence erupted in Siliana, an agricultural town southwest of Tunis, after a video posted online showed security forces violently reprimanding a shepherd whose flock had entered the premises of a government building.
The beginning of the protests also coincided with a severe 4pm nationwide curfew – beginning on the revolution’s 14 January anniversary – that was announced to stem the spread of the coronavirus. The curfew effectively cancelled a series of marches and protests planned by the families of Ben Ali’s victims.
Hichem Mechichi, who became prime minister in September, said he would work with other officials to give a voice to frustrated youth in the coming days. He also described the protesters as “delinquents, mostly minors, who have committed these acts to sow total chaos in the country”.
However, in accounts given to news agencies, protesters have complained of continuing economic despair, compounded by the impact of Covid-19, and blamed those in power for the problems that afflict the country’s population of 12 million.