Refugees in camps in Tunisia. Refugees in camps in Tunisia. Source: Mohamed Ali MHENNI - Wikicommons / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-SA 2.5

The demands imperialist institutions are making upon Tunisia could revive the explosive possibilities of resistance repeatedly seen in Tunisia’s history, argues John Clarke

In the midst of a global cost-of-living crisis, conditions of acute economic instability have emerged in Tunisia. In this situation, the harsh terms of a $1.9 billion loan by the IMF have proved to be rather more than the government of the country is prepared to accept. Very typically, the IMF wants ‘Tunis to undertake … a “comprehensive economic reform programme” that would phase out subsidies on fuel and electricity.’ However, ‘President Kais Saied has repeatedly rejected “foreign diktats that will lead to more poverty”.’

Various Western leaders have expressed deep concern about the situation in Tunisia, and they fervently hope that terms can be agreed upon with the IMF. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has suggested that a deal is vital because the economy of the country risks ‘risks falling off the deep end.’

European Union foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell is alarmed that economic and social collapse in Tunisia might ‘trigger a new flow of migrants to Europe.’ For her part, far-right Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, has said that: ‘Tunisia is a nation that is in extreme distress and clearly, leaving it to its fate can have consequences that are very serious.’

IMF arm twisting

This reluctance to submit to IMF arm twisting and to swallow the austerity measures it requires is very significant. High unemployment, food shortages, and the cost-of-living crisis, greatly exacerbated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the impacts of climate change, have had a severe effect in Tunisia. The ‘reforms’ that the IMF requires to go beyond the elimination of vital subsidies on basic necessities and include the privatisation of over a hundred state-owned enterprises.

President Saied is strongly opposed to these brutal measures, and he has baulked at the details, insisting that the IMF must be replaced with ‘a new global financial institution’ that would reflect ‘a new human order where hope replaces despair.’ Though he makes such statements, Saied is very far from being a champion of poor Tunisians and is, in fact, a highly autocratic political figure. He has assumed ‘far-reaching powers since sacking the government in July 2021’, and he dissolved the parliament so as to impose a more regressive constitution on the country.

Saied, moreover, has not hesitated to inflict a huge cut in living standards, in order to comply with the demands of debt repayment. Still, he knows very well that the curtailing of subsidies on basic items would be an explosive question and he greatly fears the potential for seriously increased unrest in a country with a strong history of social resistance.

Even as the IMF tries to force a ‘solution’ to Tunisia’s economic woes that is based on greatly intensified levels of austerity and disastrous cuts in living standards, its government has been pressed into service as an enforcer for Fortress Europe and the ongoing effort to block the movement of migrants and asylum seekers.

The EU has recently ‘struck a deal with the Tunisian government to quell migration coming to European shores.’ This will involve payments of $1.12 billion so as to intensify the country’s role in ‘the collective expulsions of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.’ Already, in the first quarter of this year, ‘the Tunisian government stopped seventeen thousand migrants from departing in boats’ for Europe but, despite such efforts, ‘Tunisia has overtaken Libya as the primary hub for departure’ and the EU wants to intensify the policing role regardless of the human cost.

The EU’s leaders are, of course, fully aware of the dreadful implications of contracting out repressive functions to countries along the routes of migration. A report issued by Amnesty International in 2017 made clear that such an arrangement with the Libyan authorities meant that ‘European governments are knowingly complicit in the torture and abuse of tens of thousands of refugees and migrants detained by Libyan immigration authorities in appalling conditions.’

The report went on to show ‘how European governments are actively supporting a sophisticated system of abuse and exploitation of refugees and migrants by the Libyan Coast Guard, detention authorities and smugglers in order to prevent people from crossing the Mediterranean.’ It added that these governments have ‘not just been fully aware of these abuses; by actively supporting the Libyan authorities in stopping sea crossings and containing people in Libya, they are complicit in these abuses.’ The lead role in such brutal immigration enforcement will now be transferred to Tunisia.

Both the drive to impose the IMF’s brand of ‘economic stability’ on Tunisia and the EU’s effort to press the country into service as a gendarme to hold back a desperate flow of migration, speak to the relationship between the imperialist powers and poor countries under the existing global order.

In the first instance, the goal is to prop up the Tunisian economy so that it can serve the needs of Western investors while ensuring that debt repayments are fully maintained. In the second case, those seeking to escape the impacts of war and poverty are to be blocked en route, in such a way that Europe’s political leaders won’t be directly implicated in the messy details of the operation. Yet, the assumption that the mass of Tunisians will comply with these arrangements may be a hasty one.

Arab Spring

Efforts to dismantle subsidies on essential items have brought people onto the streets in Tunisia before. In 1978 and again in 1983, governments accepted World Bank and IMF conditions and reduced or eliminated subsidies on basic goods. Though hundreds were killed by security forces, the massive protests and riots that unfolded had an impact that has not been forgotten by those in power.

On December 17, 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi had his scales confiscated by police because he lacked a permit. Sick of the crushing injustices and police persecution he faced as he tried to survive, he set himself alight in an act of desperate protest. Bouazizi’s death that day prompted widespread anger and defiance. As the dead man’s cousin put it, the ‘fact they decided to stop being afraid of the government changed everything.’ The social explosion that spread beyond Tunisia would go down in history as the Arab Spring.

Unquestionably, the struggle that came out of Tunisia twelve years ago was contained and many of the gains of the movement have been taken back. Tunisia itself ‘descended back into dictatorship with President Saied’s power grab in 2021.’ Yet, ‘people are bravely resisting Saied’s oppression through boycotts, strikes and sit-ins’, and ‘the spirit of the 2011 Arab Spring protests is still very much alive.’ The attempt to impose austerity-based ‘solutions’ on Tunisia and the effort to discipline its population with the kind of measures that have made the IMF a hated institution across the planet are underway at a time of global crisis and enormous political volatility. 

In country after country, struggles are breaking out, as meagre living standards are driven down and inadequate systems of social protection are dismantled. Tunisia was the birthplace of the Arab Spring and the legacy of that powerful struggle is still very much alive in the popular consciousness. The country may well be ready to set another example of the explosive possibilities of social resistance.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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