Poverty fuels anti-austerity protests in Tunisia

Author: ELIZA VOLKMANNThu, 2018-02-01 03:00ID: 1517422460502052400TUNIS: Wahida warmed two baguettes using the only functioning rod of a three-bar electric heater, as she sat huddled under blankets. She had a bad cough, and had not been able to do her cleaning job for a week.
“The most I can earn in a day is 20 dinars ($8.22). Usually it’s only 10 or 12, and I spend it in a day,” she told Arab News.
She is divorced, with four children to support. Unable to afford rent, they were squatting in an abandoned building with no running taps. Water must be bought, so they had had none for days.
The family was at its lowest ebb. They live in Sidi H’cine, a poor neighborhood of Tunis, located 500 meters downwind from the biggest landfill site in Tunisia.
Wahida’s eldest daughter is 16, and quit school to help support them. She found a job in a local plastics factory that paid 200 dinars per month, but had to give it up because inhaling the chemicals gave her a bad cough and breathing difficulties.
Wahida’s ex-husband refuses to support the family, and there is no welfare system to fall back on.
For Wahida and many other Tunisians, life has become even harder. On Jan. 1, the government brought in the Financial Act, which imposes taxes on goods ranging from agricultural products to cars, and services such as phone calls and using the Internet.
The new law and budget was a response to pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for Tunisia to reduce its deficits and grow its economy.
But for the people, already struggling with rising inflation and food costs for the past year, it was the tipping point.
On Jan. 7, demonstrations erupted in Sidi Bouzid, the city where fruit seller Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in December 2010 to protest against the authorities, igniting the Arab Spring uprisings.
The recent demonstrations spread to nearby Kasserine on the border with Algeria, a city notorious for its social deprivation and underdevelopment, and then across the whole country. The authorities responded with police violence and extensive use of tear gas.
Subsequent marches were organized by a politically diverse umbrella movement called Fesh Testanew (What Are You Waiting For).
Night-time protests in poorer neighborhoods again led to violent clashes with police and the death of a young man in Tabourba, near Bizerte, Tunisia’s most northerly city.
On Jan. 9, youths looted a branch of the French supermarket chain Carrefour, resulting in numerous arrests. Activists said people were just stealing food to eat.
“Their hearts are swollen with rage,” Ahmad, a local activist, told Arab News. Though he is against stealing in principle, he said he can understand why the protests descended into looting.
“I can accept the stealing because the big theft is from the top. What the people are stealing is nothing,” he added.
Prime Minister Youssef Chahed condemned the vandalism, but few are convinced by his promises of welfare aid.
Former President Moncef Marzouki, founder of Al-Irada (Will) party, warned that more people would take to the streets if the social and economic situation continued to deteriorate.
After the celebrations on Jan. 14 commemorating the toppling of the old regime in 2011, the country seemed calmer.
But a week later, at a public meeting streamed live on social media, Fesh Testanew announced a new wave of demonstrations with one clear demand: The repeal of the Financial Act.
Among the most vocal advocates for more action was Jawaher Channa. A veteran of the 2011 uprising, in which she was shot by police, she was later appointed to a post in the Education Ministry.
Now she is one of the thousands of public-sector employees whose pay has been cut by 1 percent. Even though Channa and her husband consider themselves middle class, with a joint income of 2,000 dinars a month, they still go hungry some nights.
Her salary is consumed by the cost of childcare for her 7-month-old and private health insurance, as there are no public health services outside office hours.
Like many Tunisians, Channa is caught up in a spiral of debt after taking out a 10,000-dinar loan to cover the costs of giving birth.
Feeding her baby costs around 390 dinars per month. As for the adults, “we don’t buy red meat, and fruit and vegetables are a luxury,” she told Arab News.
In the 2011 uprising, the slogan was “bread, dignity and social justice.” Seven years on, the price of bread is going up, and public anger is again spilling onto the streets.
On Jan. 13, a week after the initial protests, demonstrators marched all over the country, brandishing loaves of bread and yellow cards. The cards are a clear warning to the government, said one Fesh Testanew member.
Main category: Middle-EastTags: TunisiaTunisInternational Monetary FundIMFTunisia Austerity LawTunisia Povertyrelated_nodes: Third night of unrest in Tunisia as hundreds arrestedViolence over price hike jolts TunisiaTunisia says more than 900 arrests in anti-austerity violence

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