January has proven to be the month of revolts in Tunisia. 1978, 1984, 2001, 2016, and now 2018; in each of these years, the first month has seen thousands of people take to the streets to protest unsustainable social, economic and political situations.
In some cases one issue dominated; the revolts of 1978 and, above all, of 1984 were named the 'bread riots' to reflect how the collapsing economy had turned basic necessities into luxury goods. By contrast, the 2011 uprisings railed against a broad range of structural problems, including inequality, centralization of the productive sectors, immobility of the labour market and runaway unemployment. This was not a 'simple' bread riot, but a political and institutional revolution.
In a way, this revolt worked; former President Ben 'Ali was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia became the first Arab country in history to undergo a sudden regime change whose causes were completely internal and not connected to the interests of foreign powers.
What is worrying, however, is the almost total absence of policies for economic and social development. Here it is necessary to rethink the way Europe has viewed Tunisia over the last six years. As soon as the spectre of a counter-revolution passed over the first years of transition, a naive vision of Tunisia began to spread in Europe. It was as if Tunisia no longer needed support or warranted attention, so complete was the process of transformation it had made – especially if compared with the disasters of Libya or Syria.
The fact is that the Tunisian protests today could be even more worrisome than those in 2011. It is true that the country has changed for the better since then: The new Constitution, the opening of the political landscape to parties that were previously banned, the holding of pluralistic parliamentary and presidential elections are all positive developments.From then on, Tunisia undertook a process of political and institutional transformation that made it the poster child of the Arab Spring, in contrast with Egypt, Yemen and Syria, which were quickly consumed once more by the darkness of winter. But is this a true picture of Tunisia? If so, why are the streets of the great suburbs of Tunis and the towns of the Center-West again filled with thousands of people? And to what extent are the protests comparable with those that led to the fall of the Ben 'Ali regime in 2011? However, hidden beneath the apparent transformation of the country was a ruling class struggling to answer the concrete demands of its citizens. Tunisians, once they did away with their ruler, hoped for an improvement to their living conditions. But this did not happen. Not only did it not happen, the perception has grown among the Tunisian people in recent years that it may never happen.
Citizens believe that the demands of social equality, improvement of socio-economic conditions and attention to the most disadvantaged groups are being ignored by the political parties, who think only of short-term political gain and have no interest in long-term reform.
This is why today's riots are more dangerous than those of 2011; the hope and enthusiasm that animated that revolt against dictatorship has been replaced by disillusionment with democracy. There is little hope for a better future, only anger at the present’s failure. In this context, the risk of a return to authoritarian customs cannot be excluded.
Indeed, this is already happening. Since 2015 the government has resumed practices of repression and censorship that were thought to be a thing of the past, granting impunity to the police under the pretext of security and the fight against terrorism. This is a grave mistake: Terrorism is an effect and not a cause of Tunisia’s problems.
It will become clear in the coming days whether the current protests will subside, or if confrontation in the streets will last. In any case, starting tomorrow, the priority must be to put in place concrete policies for the development of the western and central regions, reform of the security sector and the judicial system, and improved competitiveness of the economy. This will not be an easy task, but the alternative is permanent mobilization. Or a return to the past.