Analysis. Eight years after the Ben Ali dictatorship, the problems that birthed the Arab Spring continue to fill Tunisians with despair.

A journalist’s suicide could spark another ‘revolution’ in Tunisia

Civil unrest has again broken out in Tunisia on the eve of the eighth anniversary of the Jasmine Revolution on Jan. 14. Then, as now, what unleashed the popular revolt was the self-immolation of a young man. On Dec. 24, Abdelrazak Zergui, a video reporter precariously employed at a local TV station, died after setting himself on fire in Martyrs’ Square in Kasserine. He was 32 years old, twice divorced and with two children, and had to face his troubles alone, just like all the inhabitants of the interior regions of Tunisia, which have been abandoned by the central government.

Eight years after the fall of dictator Ben Ali, poverty, unemployment, and the absence of the tourism revenue enjoyed by the coastal regions have again brought the areas that started the 2010 revolution to despair. “In 20 minutes, I will set myself on fire, and maybe afterwards the state will take care of Kasserine. Here, people are dying of hunger, they have nothing at all to put in their mouths… Are we not human beings? Are we not like you?” said the journalist in a video recorded before he set himself ablaze.

The tragedy of Zergui was clearly reminiscent of that of Mohamed Bouazizi, who burned himself on Dec. 17, 2010, in Sidi Bouzid, not far from Kasserine, because the police had confiscated his vegetable cart with which he made a living as a street vendor. He died on Jan. 4 after terrible suffering, and his death marked the beginning of the uprising that would bring down the dictatorship.

Likewise, the protests ignited by Zergui’s death did not stop in Kasserine, but are expanding across the country, reaching the Avenue Bourguiba, the main avenue in Tunis. The slogan of the new movement, “Enough,” has replaced the “Dégage” (“Leave!”) of eight years ago—however, just like then, “the people want the end of the regime.” There have been daily clashes between police and protesters.

Some claim to have seen people giving money and phone recharge cards to demonstrators in Kasserine, but it isn’t possible that all the protesters have been paid. The Islamists of Ennahda have declared themselves against the protests. Abdelkarim Harouni, the leader of the party, announced on the national radio station that he had asked the head of the government, Youssef Chahed, to use all the repressive security forces, even military, to suppress the protests, calling the protesters enemies of the country who want to destroy Tunisia.

Ennahda is the largest party supporting the government led by Chahed, who has lost the confidence of Nida Tounes, the party of President Beji Caid Essebsi, which had appointed him in 2016. In view of next year’s elections, the fight between the secular and Islamist forces is only getting fiercer. They are next set to clash in Parliament over the law regarding equal inheritance for men and women, which has already been approved by the government.

A fatwa has been issued by Imam Ilyes Dardour against deputies who vote in favor of the law. Speaking out against Dardour’s fatwa, the Mufti of the Republic, Battikh Othman, said: “They don’t have the right to mix politics and religion. We want a distinction: politics is one thing, religion another.” The Mufti’s words were not enough to calm the conservative imams, who are threatening the politicians who will vote for the law and asking their followers to no longer vote for them or their parties.

The inheritance law is not the only object of the conflict between the secularists and Ennahda. It has come out that the Islamist party was involved in hiding evidence in the murder trial of Chokri Belaid, who was assassinated on Feb. 6, 2013. Hamma Hammami, the spokesman of the Popular Front, the party to which Belaid belonged, has been unsparing in assigning culpability to the Islamists: “All the evidence available shows that the death of Chokri Belaid was a state-sponsored murder, given the obstacles that were introduced so that the truth would not be revealed. These were not technical obstacles, or obstacles pertaining to the investigation, but political obstacles coming from the ruling coalition (then led by Ennahda),” said Hammami. The next hearing before the criminal court specializing in counter-terrorism cases will be held on Feb. 20.

A lot might change between now and February: the journalists will go on strike on Jan. 14, and the employees of the public sector will do so on Jan. 17. The UGTT union, engaged in a tug of war with the government, is fully intent on reasserting its historic importance.

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