An Arab Street Caught Between Hope and Despair as Strike Looms

(Bloomberg) -- Two very different versions of Tunisia’s progress since its Arab Spring uprising were on show this week along the capital’s Habib Bourghiba Avenue, which has become a stage for locals who want to passionately argue politics.

“The revolution was a blessing. Go abroad and see what people say about Tunisia. Tunisians are the most respected people in the world,” said an elderly Islamist, whose beliefs were repressed under the autocrat ousted in 2011. “I don’t feel blessed,” countered graduate Marwan Bouzian, 22. “Ninety-nine percent of Tunisians are simple folk who just want their daily bread. This revolution was taken over by the elite.”

An Arab Street Caught Between Hope and Despair as Strike Looms

Hundreds of thousands of public servants demanding higher salaries went on strike on Thursday in the latest expression of organized rage over political and economic stagnation in a country that’s still also held up as a beacon of progress. Patience is increasingly wearing thin as the government attempts to deliver cuts to the wage bill required under the International Monetary Fund $2.9 billion loan that keeps the country afloat while political infighting and the specter of Islamist militancy hold back the economy.

Inflation is near a 25-year high, the dinar is weakening, tourism hasn’t fully recovered from jihadist attacks in 2015 and foreign investors are staying away. Almost a third of the youth population is without work, double the national level.

‘Everyone Fighting’

That means Habib Bourghiba Avenue is seldom quiet these days. Protests or political gatherings -- now increasingly unimaginable elsewhere in the Arab world -- routinely occur near the cafes, shops and government buildings strung along the thoroughfare that’s named after Tunisia’s first post-independence leader.

To mark this week’s eighth anniversary of the revolution that shook the Middle East, Tunisians flocked to the street in their thousands to listen to speeches or groove to popular bands. Many, though, weren’t celebrating and rancorous debates erupted over whether the momentous events that culminated in the 2011 revolt had even been worth the trouble.

“The problem with this country is that everyone is fighting over ideology,” said a man who gave his name only as Farid. “People should get past that and think of the people who are hungry.”

Massive Walkout

The powerful General Labor Union, or UGTT, isn’t backing down and was behind the one-day stoppage. The union shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 for its role in Tunisia’s transition to democracy but has since become a major thorn in the government’s side. It’s pressing for higher public sector pay -- already among the world’s highest in relative terms at half the national budget -- and accuses the government of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed of mortgaging the country’s independence to the IMF.

An Arab Street Caught Between Hope and Despair as Strike Looms

Speaking on television late on Wednesday, Chahed said the strike would be costly and that pay increases should reflect the state of the economy and government finances. Spending more than the nation can afford would only lead to greater borrowing, he said.

Tunisia has been running a current-account deficit of about 10 percent of its economic output for the past two years, meaning the country is already dependent on foreign financing and going deeper in debt. The size of the economy has shrunk since the revolution in 2011, sending average annual incomes down by more than 10 percent to about $3,500.

Still, officials aware of the potential for another explosion of anger prepared a budget for 2019 that increases spending by 8.5 percent and includes no new taxes, a year after planned spending cuts and tax increases sparked violent protests. But in recent weeks, labor action has spiraled.

About 670,000 people, or near 6 percent of the population, joined a public-sector strike in November, while lawyers and teachers have also walked off the job. Negotiations narrowly averted a strike by air navigation technicians in the country’s main airport.

An Arab Street Caught Between Hope and Despair as Strike Looms

Across much of the region, the hope inspired by the Arab Spring has been shunted aside by war and a return to autocratic rule. Tunisia wobbled its way into becoming a rare Arab democracy.

Fragile Gains

The country’s 2014 constitution, heralded by activists as a model, affirms equal rights and duties for male and female citizens and says the state will strive to achieve parity in all elected assemblies. Tunisia overturned legislation banning Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men -- a prohibition still common in the region. Ministers have approved a proposal to equalize inheritance rights of sons and daughters.

The question now is whether Tunisia can build on those gains as moderate Islamist and secularist politicians struggle to cohabit and economic gloom spreads.

The self-immolation of a photographer late last year brought a painful reminder of the spark that ignited the wave of Arab uprisings from 2010. Demonstrators and security forces clashed in the impoverished region of Kasserine before the protests ebbed.

It’s difficult to judge whether Tunisia is approaching a point where dissatisfaction erupts into sustained opposition to authorities, said Michael Ayari, senior Tunisia analyst at the International Crisis Group.

“People aren’t mobilized for the moment, they have to survive,” he said.

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