Seeing Red, Tunisians Protest on Arab Spring Anniversary

(Bloomberg) -- Tunisian activists took the streets Monday in the same rural town where a fruit seller set himself ablaze years ago, demanding more job opportunities and lower prices in a new show of force on the anniversary of the uprising that triggered the Arab Spring revolts.

Among the several hundred protesters marching in the town of Sidi Bouzid were members of the Red Vests, activists modeling their movement on France’s Yellow Vest protesters. The group’s members, however, opted against donning the vests or even holding their planned march in the restive Kasserine province, as had initially been planned.

"We won’t back down and we won’t go home until our demands are met," said Riad Jrad, a leader of the protesters. Another organizer, Seifeddin El-Ghabri, said that wearing the red vests was not necessary. “This is the name of our movement, but the first blow came in Sidi Bouzid, which witnessed the igniting of the spark of revolution in Tunisia in 2011."

The demonstration is the latest flare-up in the North African nation that had emerged as the most vibrant democracy in the region after the 2011 uprisings. Those rebellions began when Mohamed Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation because the catalyst for movements of millions against autocratic governments in the region.

While Tunisia has avoided the broader chaos that engulfed other Arab Spring neighbors, it has endured several major militant attacks that have encumbered efforts by successive governments to revive the economy.

Officials are now struggling to implement cost-cutting measures without stoking further unrest. The new budget for 2019 increases spending by 8.5 percent and includes no new taxes -- a plan that largely runs counter to the reform measures supported by the International Monetary Fund which, in 2016, approved a $2.9 billion loan to Tunisia.

Seeing Red, Tunisians Protest on Arab Spring Anniversary

Evidence of the unrest that led up to the Red Vest protests has been ample. In the past month alone, hundreds of thousands public service employees went on a day long strike. Lawyers and teachers have also walked off the job, while negotiations narrowly averted a strike by air navigation technicians in the country’s main airport.

Adding to the chaos has been a weeks-long feud between President Beji Caid Essebsi and his premier, Youssef Chahed -- a battle that has largely ripped apart the coalition government of moderate Islamists and secularists.

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"Tunisia is having a tough time in the face of protests and strikes at a time of economic and political crises between the leaders of the executive branch," analyst Boulbaba Salem said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.