In the first half of January, a wave of protests spread across Tunisia. Most observers say that the new finance law, implemented at the beginning of the year, sparked them.
Indeed, these demonstrations are taking place against a backdrop of harsh austerity measures. But neoliberal reform in Tunisia is nothing new. In fact, the government has continuously put such measures in place since Ben Ali’s 2011 overthrow.
On the one hand, there’s a risk of reading too much into recent events: though demonstrations have been organized across the country to express broad discontent, neither their size nor their composition presage a rapid uprising capable of destabilizing the political forces now in power.
But we shouldn’t also dismiss them as a meaningless drop in the ocean of tumultuous political developments that have been unfolding in the region. Rather, the current mobilization serves as more evidence that the policies pursued since Ben Ali’s ouster will not satisfy the Tunisian people’s demands for social justice and dignity.
Since 2011, two political forces have held power: the liberal Nidaa Tounes, where most of Ben Ali’s former supporters gathered, and the fundamentalist Ennahdha, which faced massive protests after the killings of Popular Front, anti-fundamentalist activists Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi in 2013. Both parties have pursued the same economic policies as Ben Ali’s regime did. In fact, since 2015, Nidaa Tounes and Ennahdha have governed the country together.
Tunisia accrued a large amount of debt during Ben Ali’s twenty-three years of despotic rule. But the Deauville Partnership, introduced at the 2011 G8 summit, launched a new cycle of loans that have further burdened the country. Like all loans, the new ones come with conditions, requiring Tunisia to implement IMF structural adjustment policies in order to liberalize the country’s economy.
The protest wave reveals how little has changed since 2011: the ruling elites, allied with international finance, are trying to balance the budget on ordinary citizens’ backs, while the Tunisian people refuse to give up on their revolutionary demands.
The Debt Trap
Between 1970 and 2009, Tunisia paid its creditors $3.5 billion more than what it borrowed. Yet in 2010, right before Ben Ali’s overthrow, public debt still amounted to 25.6 billion dinars ($18.2 billion). In fact, the vast majority — more than 80 percent — of the loans Tunisia took out between 2011 and 2016 were used to service the debt contracted by the former regime in order to strengthen its authoritarian rule and enrich the Ben Ali clan.
Tunisian public debt represented 41 percent of the country’s GDP in 2010, and that figure was expected to reach 70 percent in 2017. In those seven years, the Tunisian government took out numerous loans with IMF conditions attached. The IMF itself signed two loans: one for $1.8 billion in 2013 and another one for $2.8 billion in 2016. The required reforms imposed currency depreciation, which only made it more expensive for the country to pay back its foreign debt.
When the IMF and Tunisia signed a second loan in May 2016, they expected the debt-to-GDP ratio to stabilize at 51 percent by 2019. After public debt reached 62 percent of GDP in 2016, the IMF scaled back this objective, announcing that the structural adjustment program would aim at stabilizing the ratio below 70 percent by 2020.
From these figures, it is clear that the Tunisian debt has become unsustainable. This reality becomes even clearer when we recognize that the country cannot repay its debts without impinging on fundamental human rights.
Unemployment already sits around 15 percent — but 30 percent among young people and college graduates. Now, observers expect that debt service will consume 22 percent of Tunisia’s total public expenses in 2018. This share amounts to almost twelve times the Ministry of Vocational Training and Employment budget, almost six times the Ministry of Social Affairs budget, or the total resources allocated for the Ministries of Higher Education and Scientific Research, of Public Health, of Culture, of Public Infrastructure, of Agriculture, and of Local Affairs and Environment combined.
There are strong arguments for canceling the debt inherited from the Ben Ali regime. Even the European parliament called it “odious” in one of its resolutions. Yet the Tunisian MPs don’t seem eager to take up a bill calling for a debt audit. Indeed, the alliance between the ruling classes and the IMF is convenient for both: the government can blame the fund for imposing austerity policies, while creditors can claim that the Tunisian rulers willingly agreed to the loans and their conditions.
Implementing and Resisting Austerity
The liberals of Nidaa Tounes and pro-market fundamentalists of Ennahdha have not been reluctant to implement the IMF’s structural adjustments. In fact, the government has used successive finance laws to introduce most of the fund’s preferred policies. These initiatives all aim to make public administration “more productive” by privatizing “nonstrategic” public companies or encouraging one of twenty-first-century capitalism’s favorite tools: public-private partnerships. Tunisia’s three public banks have been undergoing a privatization process for the last two years. Despite these measures, private investors have demonstrated little interest in putting their money in Tunisia.
The 2018 finance law raised the value-added tax (VAT) by one percentage point while subsidies on basic commodities, particularly energy, were lowered in the previous years. Christine Lagarde acknowledged the IMF’s role in the economic and social chaos that prevailed before the uprisings, but the fund’s policies remain largely the same today as they were prior to 2011.
Throughout 2017, we heard the Tunisian government and other observers — economists, some journalists, and so-called experts — blaming the public sector’s “outsized wage bill” for the country’s ongoing economic crisis. The IMF, in its cynical response to Jihen Chandoul’s recent opinion piece, used the same talking points. This rhetoric, hostile to public services, targets one of the most combative sectors of Tunisian society. Indeed, the Tunisian governments and the IMF have repeatedly tried to freeze civil servants’ wage levels since 2012, but they have had to back off as these public workers fought for higher wages in order to weather the crisis and growing inflation.
In fact, the Tunisian people have met this crisis with intense resistance, organizing strikes, marches, and sit-ins as well as clashing with police — all methods that proved successful in 2011.
In January 2016, the death of Ridha Yahyaoui, an unemployed college graduate protesting the unexplained denial of his application for a government job, sparked a strong wave of mobilizations in the country’s poorer and less urbanized regions. These demonstrations rapidly spread to the cities. The world had witnessed the fall of Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime after the death of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi on December 17, 2010, so it held its breath in the beginning of 2016, reminded that the Tunisian people’s demands not only hadn’t been satisfied but the country’s economic and social conditions had actually worsened.
Public sector mobilizations grew particularly strong at the end of 2016, eventually forcing head of the government Youssef Chahed to get rid of his minister of education in April 2017. The finance minister was fired in the same move, which coincided with intensifying protests in the southern region of Tataouine. There, the population rose up against the lack of infrastructure and jobs in an area whose gas and oil resources are overexploited by foreign corporations.
This year’s demonstrations resembled the January 2016 protests, as hundreds of young people clashed with police. The number of active protesters may not have equaled past mobilizations, but the discontent they express is widely shared among the population.
And the government knows it. Indeed, Tunisia’s rulers moved quickly to repress the revolt. Unlike other public sector budget lines, security and armed forces have not faced cuts in recent years. One student reported that police forces were “aiming to terrorize and silence protesters through systematic violence.” Security forces killed a protester in Tebourba and have arrested close to one thousand people across the country. In Tunis, the trials started almost immediately. In order to calm the uprising, the government eventually reversed some of the price increases.
A Deepening Counterrevolution
The recent protests reveal the growing polarization between the government, which represents the interests of counterrevolutionary elites, and the rest of society. With the nomination of a new government in August 2016 and the cabinet reshuffle of September 2017, President Beji Caid Essebsi has tightened the old ruling classes’ grip on the Tunisian state.
At ninety-one years old, Essebsi is the second oldest head of state in the world. He’s been a professional politician for more than fifty years, belonging to both the Ben Ali regime and the Bourguiba regime before that. Though the new constitution was supposed to move the country away from presidential regimes, Essebsi’s cabinet reshuffles in 2016 and 2017 allowed many of the President’s close associates and former regime members to retake power.
Chahed’s loyalty to Essebsi earned him the role of head of government. Ridha Chalghoum went from presidential adviser in February 2016 to minister of finance in September 2017, a position he held in the last year of Ben Ali’s presidency as well. Hatem Ben Salem, appointed minister of education in 2017, occupied the same function from 2008 until the despot’s fall. Slim Chaker, a member of the government from September 2017 until his sudden death one month later, was also Essebsi’s close associate.
The reconciliation act further supports the former regime’s return. While the government loudly claims to fight corruption, this law granted amnesty to corrupt officials from the Ben Ali regime.
The revolution’s social and economic demands may not have been satisfied, but the uprising nevertheless won decisive victories, most importantly, the freedoms of speech, association, and assembly. The Tunisian people have managed to hold onto these rights despite the state of emergency that has been ongoing since the 2015 terror attacks. And now they deserve our solidarity as they fend off those trying to hijack the revolution with the support of international creditors.