Tunisia’s Government Pledges Improvements After Protests

The New York Times 

By Lilia Blaise 

TUNIS — The Tunisian authorities are moving to defuse the anger that has driven protesters to the streets over the past week and led to hundreds of arrests.

As still more people gathered on Sunday to mark the seventh anniversary of the Tunisian revolution, a wave that set off the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, the government said it was taking steps to ease the plight of the poor and the jobless. Among the measures: Government aid to needy families will be increased to $86 a month from $61, with about 120,000 families getting extra help, they said.

Government officials also said they would review the retirement disbursements for some people who are being underpaid because their employers did not declare their real salary. And they said they would extend health care to all Tunisians.

Early Sunday, President Beji Caid Essebsi went to a neighborhood in Tunis, the capital, to announce a new youth center.

“This is the first time a senior official has visited this neighborhood,” Mr. Essebsi said. “Today, we inaugurate this youth housing complex, which was burned down during the revolution. The innovation in this project is that it is a pilot project, financed not only by the government, but also by private investors and members of civil society.”

The opposition Popular Front, a coalition of leftist parties, mocked the measures in a statement on Sunday and called for protests “until suspension of the measures in the finance law that affect citizens’ buying power.”

And the protesters seemed little mollified as they rallied on Habib Bourguiba avenue, the site of large protests that in 2011 toppled the dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Coming from across the political spectrum, they seemed united on at least one issue: dissatisfaction with the current government.

Nawres Douzi, a 21-year-old student, was part of a youth group that came to the demonstration dressed as clowns.

“We did not come today in the name of our movement,” he said, “but more as young citizens and activist clowns, to spread some sarcasm on what has been announced during those last days by the government. We want them to be aware that we are not buying any of it.”

On one side of the demonstration, protesters chanted for the “fall of the establishment.” On the other side, backers of the Islamist party Ennahda, which took power for several years after the revolution, called for its return.

Protesters from each side shouted at one another, the taunts competing with loud music from a concert stage in the middle of the avenue. Small clashes erupted between the demonstrators, and some accused Ennahda of trying to dominate the event.

“They are in permanent electoral campaign,” said Mouna Ben Halima, a 44-year-old tourism executive at the demonstration. “It is not surprising. It is the fault of other political parties if they don’t do the same.

Ms. Halima expressed mixed feelings about the day.

“I am happy because last year the avenue was less crowded and today there were people, there was tension,” she said. “But at the same time, I am a bit worried because were are at a crossroads. Will it get better or will get worse for the country?”

Over all, the atmosphere on the avenue was friendly. People came with their children, stores opened for shoppers and vendors sold Tunisian flags at each corner.

At one end, a small group stood holding photographs, their faces showing anger and desperation. They were the families of the “martyrs” — those who died during the 2011 uprising but have not, their loved ones say, gotten recognition or justice.

“We especially protested for them today,” said one protester, Sabra Chraifa, 33. “Because the other challenge of this year is that the government is supposed to release an official list of names people who died during the revolution, and it has been seven years that we are waiting for this.”

Over the weekend, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, Mr. Essebsi and other government officials spoke separately about their goals for improving the quality of life.

Government officials acknowledge that the events of the past week reflect despair among the people, but argue that they can put the country back on track. They have pointed to positive indicators like the return of tourism and improved growth. About 6.7 million tourists came to Tunisia in 2017, up from 4.5 million in 2016. Tunisian tourism had suffered after the revolution and after terrorist attacks on the Bardo Museum and a hotel in Sousse in 2015.

The government hopes to bring unemployment down to 12.5 percent, from the current 15 percent.

It has also committed to being a guarantor for poor people who do not fill the criteria to apply for bank loans so they can at least have money for housing — a change that is expected to reach 500,000 families. In Tunisia, bank loans are often available only to public servants or others with stable salaries. Others are sometimes required to put down extra money.

A recent poll published by the International Republican Institute found that an overwhelming majority of Tunisians consider the economic situation “very bad.”

Michael Ayari, a senior analyst for Tunisia for the International Crisis Group, which just released a report about the authoritarian drift in the country, said the past week’s events “showed that there is a fertile ground for social anger that needs to be taken into account.”

“What will be interesting in the next days,” Mr. Ayari said, is “how the youth movements, which lack leadership, will structure themselves to have an impact during the next elections.”

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