Opinion: Protests in Tunisia come with a bitter taste | Opinion | DW | 23.01.2021

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Opinion: Protests in Tunisia come with a bitter taste

Recent unrest shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who's followed the country's trajectory. The image of Tunisia as the only "survivor" of the uprisings in the region is misleading, writes DW's Sarah Mersch.

Protesters in Tunisia clash with security forces in Tunis

Ten years after the uprising in Tunisia, not much has changed for the better

This week's turmoil is the result of an accumulation of frustration, lack of perspective and hope, and economic hardship worsened by the pandemic. The strict lockdown over the long weekend of the 10th anniversary of the ousting of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali backfired. It sparked a wave of nationwide protests, preceded by a growing number of sit-ins and demonstrations over the past months.

It leaves a bitter taste to see that 10 years into what started out to be an inclusive democratic process, many young people feel excluded once more from public life. Many of those out in the streets were children when Ben Ali's regime was toppled and never consciously experienced life in a dictatorship.

Yet the people and the structures they contest today are largely the same as 10 years ago: a system that doesn't allow them to thrive, and a state which, in the absence of infrastructure and basic services for its citizens especially in marginalized areas, is first and foremost represented by security forces.

Repression remains the order of the day

Lacking a clear reform process, and with several repressive laws still in place, for many Tunisians today the police forces represent repression rather than protection. Citizens' demands, worries and everyday struggles are rarely recognized outside of election campaigns; taking to the streets seems to be the only way for many young people to make their voices heard.

DW's Sarah Mersch

DW's Sarah Mersch

The inability of the different political actors of the past decade to find answers to the questions that go beyond creating meaningless jobs for young people in an already inflated administration clearly shows the limits of the so-called culture of consensus.

While it may have saved the country from breaking apart by including disparate political forces in the early years after the uprising, that culture of consensus paralyzes Tunisia today. 

Politicians spend most of their time trying to achieve this consensus, rather than looking for solutions to some of the most pressing issues: reforms in the administrative, security and judiciary sectors, or unemployment and subsidy policies. That which would require making obvious and uncomfortable decisions.

Turning a blind eye

Over the last 10 years, nine different heads of government — and even more Cabinets — along with recurring fights in the fragmented parliament have all pointed to the dire need of a minimum of stability to implement reforms, rather than just more talk.

But careful — neither Tunisian politicians nor international donors should be deceived into confusing stability with autocratic structures. Many European governments supported Ben Ali for way too long, turning a blind eye to the repressive nature of his regime and falling for his tale of stability and protection against extremist movements and migration.

Tunisia's current situation is also the result of these decades of oppression, and a political elite that is still struggling to adjust. But with one difference: today, Tunisians are no longer keeping quiet.