'Silence before the storm' in Tunisia’s city of revolutionaries

Phosphate rich but underdeveloped, Gafsa has a reputation for unrest and, ‘The National’ finds, economics not ideology is at the core of unhappiness

Men play table football in Gafsa. Ghaya Ben Mbarek for The National
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When the Gafsa mining basin uprising shook the south-western region of Tunisia in 2008, the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali could have crumbled were it not for a response with fire and steel.

More than a decade later, the region is still a thorn in the side of Tunis ― protests and sit-ins are common in the undeveloped area reliant on mining as the main source of work where the economic and social problems facing many in the country are magnified.

With national unemployment above 16 per cent and inflation above 10 per cent last year, observers have started to compare the situation with the winter of 2008 and believe that the memories of the uprising in Gafsa and Redeyef hold valuable lessons for today.

The onset of an uprising

The uprising in Gafsa in 2008 lasted for almost six months, mainly around the towns of Redeyef, Moulares, Metlaoui and Mdhilla in the phosphate-rich basin of the governorate.

The uprising erupted over what many saw as an unfair employment structure at the Gafsa Phosphate Company, the area's main employer.

The Ben Ali regime sensed the domino effect such protests and strikes could have on the underdeveloped nearby western governorates and barricaded the mining basin with National Guard and Tunisian military forces.

People fought off tear gas, birdshot, live ammunition and police lines. Many were arrested or detained, several reported being tortured and several were killed.

While the government survived another three years, the events of 2008 were part of the catalyst for the 2011 uprising that swept the entire country and toppled Ben Ali's regime.

But in the years since, many say there has been little change ― protests are regular and despite workers saying their labour in the phosphate mines earns the state-run company millions, they reap little reward.

Disappointment and continuing marginalisation

“We had hoped for better things when the revolution came in 2011, we waited for structural change,” Houda Jouini, an activist and journalist at local radio station Capsa FM, told The National during a visit to the town.

“We became one of the frowned-upon governorates due to our resistance-rich history.”

Ms Jouini said she feels Gafsa has been punished for standing up to the government and so received little development money, including for essential services such as health, transport and education.

“We have nothing but the phosphate company. Investors in other sectors cannot come here because of the near absence of functional infrastructure.

“We are still calling for the same demands in 2023, something that we called for even before freedom and national dignity — it’s the call for the right to employment.”

With few employment opportunities, many residents either move to the richer coastal cities or try to leave for Europe.

Houda Jouini, a journalist, at the headquarters of her local radio station Capsa FM. Ghaya Ben Mbarek / The National

Predicting an imminent storm

The whole town of Redeyef, the heart of the mining basin, is coated in a cloud of yellowish dust. It is not a product of the desert, but the residue of the phosphate industry.

“Redeyef has always been labelled as the political thermometer of Tunisia,” Tarek Hlimi, president of the Gafsa division of the Tunisian Social and Economic Forum, told The National.

Mr Hlimi lived through — and took part in — the 2008 uprising in his hometown of Redeyef.

He said that the state-owned Gafsa Phosphate Company has profited off the sale of the area's phosphate but they've not seen any reinvestment in the community.

“The company evolved throughout the year and developed its extraction mechanisms, which made its production and revenues increase. However, at the same time, the socio-economic situation of the region went from bad to worse and zero development took place,” he said.

Accounts for the public company are not readily available, but the Gafsa Phosphate company's production director Rafii Nasib told the local journal Assabeh that Tunisia made 470 million Tunisian dinars ($151 million) in 2022, up tenfold from 2020 as global prices rose due to the war in Ukraine.

Mr Nasib also said that the ongoing strikes and sit-ins cut production by between 1.5 million and two million tonnes a year.

Omar Hlimi, president of the General Tunisian Labour Union in Redeyef, says resistance can break the cycle of hopelessness. Ghaya Ben Mbarek / The National

“It just makes you wonder whether they care about us or they want this country to go into ruin and its people to die,” said Tarek Hlimi of the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights.

While he sees the effects of the underinvestment and the anger at a lack of jobs, Mr Hlimi says he's not sure the current climate is that similar to the run-up to the 2008 uprising. He feels people have lost all interest in public life and there is not the sense of unity needed to bring about the change he feels Tunisia needs. But, he feels, some form of an uprising is coming.

“People need to throw [away] prejudices and look for what brings them together," he said. "There’s no specific recipe for an uprising, but history in Tunisia can help us read the signs and see that [it's possible one is] imminent, no matter what.”

Omar Hlimi, president of the Tunisian General Labour Union branch in Redeyef, told The National that the town's reputation for resistance was born from times of hopelessness.

But he said it was hard to see what the spark for more protests would be.

“We find ourselves in a situation of confusion, that one idea that is capable of gathering people is absent," he said.

Phosphate waste piled up beside the road from Redeyef to Gafsa. Ghaya Ben Mbarek / The National

Just over a decade after the uprising brought in democracy, many Tunisians are disillusioned ― voter turnout at last year's election was a historic low.

Omar's brother Tarek says that the politicians, nearly 400km away in Tunis, are not interested in improving the lives of those far from the capital.

“All politicians today are too caught up in their own thoughts to look around them, they keep jumping in the air and talk about things that make no sense to the mundane Tunisian,” he said.

“You can’t talk to him [a normal Tunisian citizen] about democracy while he does not possess the means to feed his children.”

Omar said Tunisia needed new mechanisms for protest, other than marches and sit-ins.

“We cannot continue to use the same classical tools of resistance," he said. "Those tools have been emptied of any meaning. We are in dire need of the birth of a renovated resistance mechanism that allows the people to hold in their hand the key to their own destiny.”

'Bribery over development'

The ― until recent ― longtime MP for Gafsa, Ammar Amroussia, told The National that successive governments had tried to end the protests by offering cushy jobs to protesters.

These included roles at the state-owned Environment, Planting and Gardening company that didn't require staff to show up because while it was established in 2008 no law was ever passed to mandate its guideline for employment or area of work.

“The main slogan that came out of every social movement in Gafsa was development, the state chose to buy social peace with bribery,” he said.

He added that the lack of investment also hurt the lucrative phosphate trade.

“We had times where there were no sit-ins taking place in the main production areas but transportation of phosphate was deemed impossible because a bridge collapsed on one of the railways and was not fixed,” he said.

The revolution lives on

The most common sentiment shared among Tunisians in Gafsa is one of disappointment and resentment towards the political elite.

In Redeyef, people have seen enough empty promises and feel abandoned, said local philosophy professor and writer Habib Ben Mohamed.

“The [2011] revolution deviated from its course the night it ignited,” he told The National near the Martyr Plaza in Redeyef centre.

“Our demands were never seriously discussed over the past 12 years and all they did was to buy our silence with promises that were never delivered.”

Habib Ben Mohamed on his motorbike with grandson Ahmed in Redeyef. Ghaya Ben Mbarek / The National

Many residents believe that a new wave of protest is coming unless the economic and social situation changes rapidly, especially when they lose hope of getting by.

“The people whose grandparents fought out the [French] coloniser and whose parents toppled down a mighty dictatorship, would not stay still while faced with social injustice in our present time," Ms Jouini said.

"This is only the silence before the storm.”

Updated: March 17, 2023, 6:00 PM