Poverty sparks Tunisia riots in cauldron of Arab uprisings

Death of labourer started three days of rioting in scenes reminiscent of 2011

A man walks past revolutionary graffiti and a poster celebrating the martyr Mohammed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. Photo: Lindsay Mackenzie for The National.
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Calm returned to the Tunisian town of Jelma on Wednesday after three days of protests sparked by the death of a labourer in circumstances similar to events that started the Arab uprisings in 2011.

Abdelwaheb Hablani, 25, died on Friday after setting himself alight in protest against poverty and poor living conditions in the country, beginning days of running battles through the small town.

The town is 30 kilometres from Sidi Bouzid, where the street seller Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in 2010 sparking rallies that forced president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to step down after 23 years and led to anti-government protests across the Arab world.

“The scene brings to mind the days of the revolution," Bilel Harzali, a Jelma resident, told Reuters. “People are angry because of the lack of development and the strong security response.”

Tear gas canisters littered the town’s deserted streets on Tuesday, according to images posted to the Facebook page of media company Jelma FM.

"Since the revolution social conditions have become difficult and the rate of poverty has been steadily increasing," Naziha Salhi, the site's administrator told The National.

Ms Salhi said there were no businesses and no jobs.

People shop at a market in Tunis, Tunisia November 20, 2019. Picture taken November 20, 2019. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi
People shop at a market in Tunis. Reuters, file

Like many towns in Tunisia, little has improved in Jelma since the uprising. Poverty was a key issue in national elections in October, which ended without any party winning enough of a majority to form a government.

While few dispute the desperation within Tunisia's interior regions, there are no easy answers. "It's a systematic problem," civil society activist Heythem Guesmi, who has been active in several social justice campaigns told The National. "The state rarely thinks about rural injustice, so there isn't any social or economic mechanism to address it.

Unemployment, which was officially a little over 13 per cent before the uprising, is now about 15 per cent. In some of the towns in the country’s rural interior, that climbs as high as 30 per cent.

“Personally, I don’t think there’s ever been any real strategy [to boost the economy in the interior]," Mr Guesmi said. He added that he didn't trust politicians to tackle the issues, saying that there are too many different voices in the fractured parliament where no party has a majority and nobody is offering "radical strategy to deal with the issues in the rural areas."

The anger behind the protests comes from structural issues in the Tunisian economy.

“The private sector only really exists on the coast, which is more in harmony with the global economy than the hinterland,” said Hamza Meddeb, a research fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre.

“The interior has been left to rely on the state, the informal economy and agriculture, as well as serving as a source of manpower for the coast, which has exacerbated the gap in development.”

After the uprising, the government invested in mass employment projects for the hardest-hit areas but an inefficient rollout and the worsening economy meant that funds dwindled and the impact was blunted.

“From the 2014 elections onwards, there’s been this sense of getting back to business as usual and forgetting that the revolution ever happened,” Mr Meddeb said.

But there is hope that the latest protests will refocus minds in Tunis.

“Jelma has put social issues right at the top of the agenda. People did that, not the politicians. People. Now they can’t ignore it.”