Tunisians Rally Against Austerity Measures, Deride Concessions

(Bloomberg) -- Hundreds of Tunisians demonstrated Sunday in the capital, Tunis, demanding a repeal of painful austerity measures on the seventh anniversary of the revolt that sparked the Arab Spring.

The cash-strapped government was unable to head off the rallies with its announcement late Saturday of an additional $70 million in aid for needy families. Tunisia’s main opposition parties have rejected the government’s overtures as insufficient.

“Government actions are just painkillers and cannot deal with the situation,” Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, head of the opposition Democratic Movement, said in an interview on Sunday. “The Tunisian ship will sink” unless solutions are found, he said.

Demonstrators mobilized in Tunis and other cities and towns in response to calls by the opposition Popular Front and the powerful UGTT labor union to peacefully “reclaim their revolution.” The rally in Tunis took place under heavy security after protests last week against spending cuts and new taxes contained in the 2018 budget turned violent. One protester has been killed and more than 700 have been arrested.

The concessions announced Saturday were intended to cushion the impact of reforms the government has promised under its 2016 deal with the International Monetary Fund for a $2.9 billion loan.

Serious Challenges

Tunisia has made more advances toward building a democracy than any other Arab Spring country. But political infighting, strikes, demonstrations and terrorist attacks have complicated efforts to engineer the kind of economic revival Tunisians had envisaged when they pushed longtime autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from power in 2011.

Inflation is steadily rising, reaching 6.4 percent in December, and youth employment -- a gauge of a nation’s economic prospects -- tops 30 percent.

President Beji Caid Essibsi, in a speech Sunday in the impoverished district where a protester was killed, defended the aid measures as “better than nothing.”

“Tunisia doesn’t have great potential,” but it does have its people, Essibsi said. It was important to “know how to invest these modest possibilities” and distribute them equitably, he said.

Noureddine Téboubi, the secretary-general of the UGTT labor federation, warned that protests would continue as long as the government maintained a policy of “lack of transparency and clarity when making decisions.”

Democracy Progress

The additional welfare measures, and their rejection, signal that the government’s economic reform plans may stumble once again.

The coalition is “now under even more pressure, increasing the possibility that much-needed reforms will in their original or amended forms once again become stalled,” Anthony Skinner, Middle East-North Africa director at Verisk Maplecroft, said in an emailed note.

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