Violent protests in the city of Tataouine in south-east Tunisia subsided on Wednesday after the government said it would set up a ministerial commission to find solutions to the region’s problems.
People in Tataouine with whom The National spoke said the situation was calm but tense, with protesters ready to return to the streets.
Awatef Degnich, a co-ordinator for Amnesty International in Tataouine, said the protests began as peaceful sit-in that had been going on for two weeks to demand that the government fulfill a 2017 agreement to distribute wealth more equitably and provide jobs in one of the country’s most marginalised regions.
Infrastructure is crumbling in southern and central and western parts of Tunisia, which suffer much higher unemployment than the northern coastal regions. The frustration is particularly high in Tataouine – home to Tunisia’s petroleum industry, and its highest unemployment rate. Residents of the south and south-east have protested in previous years, blocking pipelines to highlight the stark disparity between the region’s poverty and the wealth generated by its oil.
Ms Degnich said protests flared up after security forces decided to break up the sit-in on Saturday night while the protesters were sleeping.
“The police came at 1am, and beat them violently, arresting the movement’s spokesperson, Tarek Haddad. They beat him as they put him in their car. The police hit another protester with their car, breaking his leg. They arrested 11 people.”
Within hours, a post about the beatings and arrests appeared on the Facebook page of the El Kamour protest movement, prompting more demonstrations.
Mosbah Chnayeb, a retired high school teacher and political activist in Tataouine who joined the demonstrations, said the violent repression of the protests began immediately and went on all day and night.
“It was the violence that brought more out to the protests, like family and friends of the original protesters,” he said.
Police fired tear gas at the protesters, who threw rocks and concrete at security forces. Smoke left some streets of Tataouine in a grey fog.
"The amount of gas and violence used here has no justification. Police hit houses, hospitals and schools with tear gas," said Ms Degnich.
Even the army was hit by tear gas after being called in to calm the violent situation, she added.
Mr Haddad went on a hunger strike after his arrest and was released on Wednesday. Protesters have since gone back out to clean up the streets, Ms Degnich said.
Explaining the roots of the anger, she pointed to the difficulty of finding meaningful work in Tataouine, even with a university degree. Some parts of the city have been without water for months, and the authorities are not available to address these issues, she said.
“Even the mayor of Tataouine is almost impossible to meet with to talk about problems.”
Mondher Cherni, the secretary general of the Tunisia branch of the World Organisation Against Torture, believes the violence against Tataouine’s protesters is strategic.
“There’s a larger social crisis in the country. There is political fragility in Tunis. [The government] says it can’t respond to all the protesters’ demands. So instead they want to scare them and show them the state is strong."
Few of the government promises made following the last wave of protests have been met, he said.
In 2017, Tataouine protesters shut down oil pumping stations at El Kamour in the deserts of southern Tunisia, demanding that more revenue from oil be distributed to their region.
The movement forced the government to sign an agreement with the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) and the protesters.
"The state signed an important agreement with the protesters to employ 2,500 locals within the year of 2017. But since then only 1,500 have been employed, and there's been no development in the area," Mr Chnayeb said.
Residents were supposed to be hired by a Tunisian state-run employment company, which would employ them in administration, street cleaning, and some in private petroleum companies. None of the 1,500 people hired since then have been employed by oil companies.
Workers from the oil sector and local offices stayed home on Monday in a solidarity strike organised by the UGTT.
Adnane Yahyaoui, a member of the executive office of the UGTT in Tataouine, said the union has workers in the oil industry who know the production levels of the oil fields, and therefore the value of the resources being extracted.
“Yet the income and production levels of the oil companies do not at all match with daily life and resources in Tataouine,” he said.
Mr Yahyaoui said a meeting had been called for Friday in Tataouine between ministers and protesters, with the aim of applying the 2017 agreement fully and improving the region’s economic circumstances.
“The state has to find a solution to the crisis now,” he said.