Two Weeks Into Protests, More Specific Demands Emerge

Protesters confront a riot police blockade preventing them from reaching the Ministry of Interior in downtown Tunis on January 30, 2021. Photo by Ahmed Zarrouki.

The series of January, 2021 protests across the country have featured some consistent demands in their chants and slogans. One has been for officials to release all those who have been detained during the protests. Other demands, like the “fall of the regime” have also been common, though less specific. Now, some protesters have written out specific demands, with one list of demands shared by a group called the “National Campaign to Support the Social Struggles” being shared widely on social media.

On January 25, one day before a protest in front of Parliament, the Campaign released a statement on its Facebook page that it called a “People’s Program Against the Elite’s Program.” The following is a list of that program’s ten points, according to an English translation by Myriam Amri, summarized and edited by Meshkal for length:

1. Releasing all detainees and dismantling the “system of police repression by dissolving security force unions;

2. Monthly unemployment benefits of 400 Tunisian dinars (TND) and raising the minimum monthly wage from just under 400 TND to 600 TND;

3. Setting rent ceilings, certifying home ownership rights for people in poor neighborhoods, and converting privately-owned, empty buildings into public housing;

4. Distributing “state-owned land and neglected lands of large investors to landless agricultural workers, unemployed and smallholding farmers”;

5. Canceling microcredit debts of poor people;

6. Using private clinics to address the pandemic;

7. Offering economic support and free Covid treatment to poor people, “financed by exceptional taxes on wealth and banks;”

8. Auditing the state’s natural resources, the state’s natural resource contracts with “colonial multinational companies,” and the state’s external debt;

9. Limiting car imports, redirecting hard currency to building public transportation, and

10. “Reviving the national textile industry.”

A “People’s Program Against the Elite’s Program” released by the “National Campaign to Support the Social Struggles,” on January 25, 2021.

Demands Draw Praise on Social Media, Silence from Government

Meshkal spoke with Ghassen Ben Khelifa, a coordinator of the campaign that put forward the “People’s Program.”

“We are all with these protests and supporting them and our demands are there in the statement, like releasing the detained…urgent steps that we see as possible if there was a government that had even the least bit of patriotism or gave any importance to social justice,” Ben Khelifa told Meshkal.

The statement and its program drew support from political analysts on social media.

“The clearest demands I’ve seen in a long time, and with the widest impact,” wrote Chaima Bouhlel, an activist and regular commentator on national news and debate programs, on a Facebook post sharing the Campaign’s program.

“Yes, yes, yes … and yes !!! Well formulated and very clear demands,” wrote Mohamed Dhia Hammami, a political analyst, in a Tweet sharing a screenshot of the program.

“All the points are superb but point 9, my word!” Malek Lakhal, a journalist and researcher commented in a Tweet sharing a screenshot of the program.

While there has been positive responses from some on social media, Ben Khelifa said there had “of course” been no response from officials so far.

“This state is of the bourgeoisie. This is a comprador state, an agent, drowning the country in debts…When Corona started in Tunisia, we were doing ok, there was a total lockdown and then lobbying pressure from tourism and hotel capitalists and travel agents opened the borders and Corona entered at the time and increased. So this is a state that’s not interested in the popular classes or in a program like this,” Ben Khelifa told Meshkal, using class-analysis terms to explain the government’s response.

Ben Khelifa added that he thinks that “the government, if they were smart”, would implement the program which he claims “is not a revolutionary program, it’s a reform program. We think these are small reforms.”

Instead, Ben Khelifa said he has seen the government either smearing protesters (Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi recently warned of looters and rioters in a nationally televised address while praising police “professionalism”) or claiming that the state is bankrupt and unable to spend on social programs.

“The whole time, they and their guard dogs in the media have been insulting the protesters and they’ve been bringing so-called experts to say that the state is bankrupt and we need to sell STEG [the national public energy utility], we need to sell SONEDE [the national public water utility], we need to sell the public sector and we need to go towards more liberalization,” Ben Khelifa said.

While Ben Khelifa thinks the government could avoid seeing an escalation in protests if they adopted the “People’s Program,” he said the government won’t offer such reforms “because if they do them they’ll be scared that the people demand more than this.”

Addressing the Needs of Poor Neighborhoods

Ben Khelifa told Meshkal that their campaign, which has been around since 2017 supporting various protest movements in the country, decided on the points of the “People’s Program” according to the needs of people with whom they have been in discussion. About 15 members of the campaign were involved in drafting the “People’s Program,” he said.

“They are basic things that can be done. We know from spending time with these people. For example the issue of microcredit in popular neighborhoods, debts of small farmers, benefits to unemployed people, the issue of housing, it’s not something big. I’m astonished, why do people act is if we brought them something new?” Ben Khelifa told Meshkal. “Ok, there are maybe some new points, things not talked about like microcredit, but any person who knows their country a little bit, its people a little bit, should only be able to agree with it. Obviously if he feels himself with the people and not with the elites.”

Myriam Amri, who translated the program into English and is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Harvard, said she has also seen microcredit loans as a burden on female factory workers she has interviewed in the poor Tunis neighborhood of Douar Hicher.

Amri explained that with microcredit credit loans, lenders and borrowers have to talk about them in the context of development and entrepreneurship. However, those she spoke with had often taken out loans just to make ends meet rather than to start businesses or invest in long-term projects. Amri added that the way microcredit loans are discussed and perceived as part of development projects were really “some myths all parties have to pretend.”

Another, More Localized List of Demands

While the “People’s Program” attempts to discuss the needs of people in poor neighborhoods, at least one other set of demands have come out of Hay Ettadhamon [“Solidarity Neighborhood”], a poor Tunis neighborhood where some of the most confrontational encounters between police and protesters have occurred.

On January 26, protesters from Ettadhamon were scheduled to march at 10:00 towards the Parliament in the Bardo neighborhood, where they would converge with other protesters gathering there at 13:00. Meshkal witnessed how the march from Ettadhamon was blocked by police from reaching Bardo, and those marching were told by police to go home. Many locals then did not continue to Bardo, while others who had joined the march but were not from the area, like Ben Khelifa, found other ways to reach the main protest group in front of Parliament.

Skander Alouani, a local journalist from Ettadhamon & one of the organizers of the January 26 march, showed journalists there in attendance a list of seven demands he had produced that—although it has a bit of overlap with the “People’s Program”—were more specific to Ettadhamon. Those demands include:

1. The release of all detainees who are currently getting tried in court

2. Holding a ministerial meeting, with representatives of the region [Ettadhamon] included, to discuss the urgent solutions to ease the burden of living for the people of Ettadhamon, Mnihla and Douar Hicher [other poor neighborhoods of Tunis].

3. The reconsideration of municipal structuring, as Ettadhamon was emptied of its resources after separating it from Mnihla

4. The creation of a special fund for the region to help with the maintenance of residences, helpful loans and to use it for the creation of income sources for youth, with a budget amounting to 20 million TND, under the supervision of civil society

5. The transformation of the local hospital to a regional one and increasing the health budget dedicated for the region

6. Hurrying up with the equipping of Ettadhamon’s [sports] stadium, through the installation of electricity, locker rooms and finishing up the stadiums runways

7. The restoration and maintenance of primary schools that are at risk of collapsing, as well as ensuring its security and protection from strangers.

A photo of the demands specific to the Hay Ettadhamon neighborhood produced by Skander Alouani on January 26, 2021. Photo by Ghaya Ben Mbarek.

“People are out in the street because they got hungry. They are out because the economic and political crisis, as well as the marginalizing policies, made their lives worse,” Alouani told  Meshkal on the sidelines of the march.

While the demands Alouani wrote out were not signed by any organization or individuals, Alouani said he had volunteered to organize the march and write out demands “to give a different image of our region.”

Alouani expressed a guarded welcome to people from outside of his neighborhood and indirectly questioned their political motives adding that “whoever came today to join us is welcomed, but they need to stand at the back. We do not want any politician to highjack this event.”

Bridging a Gap Between Poor Neighborhoods and Other Protests

When police blocked the Ettadhamon march from meeting up with other protesters at Parliament, many from the neighborhood did in fact end up turning back, Meshkal observed. Alouani explained that people in the neighborhood didn’t want to risk more arrests, and that’s why they didn’t try to defy the police or get around or through their blockade.

“Enough with sacrifices…for us this march will start from Nogura [traffic circle in Ettadhamon] and will be over near the fountain. Whoever wants to go to Bardo [neighborhood of Parliament] is free, but for us we do not want to risk having more people detained,” Alouani said.

Ben Khelifa said he joined the Ettadhamon protest and later went to Bardo.

“We were with them. They [the police] blocked us. They blocked everyone. There was one group that went to Ettadhamon, one group went to Bardo…[the latter] was the radical slice of the petit bourgeoisie. They’re the ones that are present in the street and are trying to be with the popular classes. That coordination is a big work in progress,” Ben Khelifa said.

Ben Khelifa explained that their campaign and their “People’s Program” statement is trying to bridge the gap between activists who may be middle class with people from poorer neighborhoods who they see as the main actors of social struggles.

“The problem is that people in popular neighborhoods go out, tussle with police, but they don’t have clear demands. They just express their indignation with the state which all they know of it is the police, and then when you ask them: ‘What do you want?’, they say: ‘Brother, find us a solution. The state needs to find us a solution.’ But it doesn’t have one,” said Ben Khelifa.

Those exact words—“find us a solution”—is a common refrain for those living in poor neighborhoods when they are asked by journalists about their living conditions. For example, several people interviewed in Ettadhamon on January 17, 2021, after nights of clashes between residents and security forces, on a news channel called Jaridat Al Horria Al Tounesseya used this exact phrase as they described issues of poverty, increasing prices and unemployment or precarious employment.

“If you go to one who didn’t finish his studies, one who is unemployed, you go to someone who works all day so that he and his family can live, you won’t find he’s able to give you something well structured. We’re making a suggestion to them,” Ben Khelifa said of the “People’s Program” statement.

For him, people in Ettadhamon and other poor neighborhoods are the main people they are trying to reach with their program.

“The statement echoed well and people engaged with it in favor of it or against. Good, at least it opened a discussion. What’s most important to us is not what people say on Facebook. What’s important to us is we try to make sure that the statement reached the people who the statement talks about and who are those concerned. That’s our priority. But a dialogue with worried liberals, we don’t think that’s our priority,” Ben Khelifa told Meshkal.

Meshkal asked Ben Khelifa how they could be sure their message is being heard by people in popular neighborhoods.

“We can’t be sure, because this is tied to our work. We distributed this statement a bit yesterday in Hay Ettadhamon,” Ben Khelifa told Meshkal on January 27, one day after the protest in Ettadhamon was blocked by police. “But the timing wasn’t suitable with the protest and all. But we’ll get the ideas across. Now even the popular class follows a bit on Facebook, partly I mean….Now that we put out the statement we will try to be on the ground…the demands will not be met today or tomorrow. These demands will be achieved through struggle. It’s a kind of activist program, a minimum level of revolutionary reforms that people could adopt if they’re convinced of it, that’s all.”

Multiple Social Struggles or Just One?

Ben Khelifa told Meshkal that their campaign has tried to support various protests and demonstrations in recent years, from the case of the injured and killed during the revolution who are seeking formal recognition, to the Kamour protests in Tataouine that have blocked the transportation of local hydrocarbon resources calling for more development, to the latest protests in poor neighborhoods.

Meshkal asked Ben Khelifa what the connection between these movements were.

“There is a clear connection in my opinion. If you go to the sit-in of the injured of the revolution and talk to people who are there, you’ll understand, you’ll see that they belong on a class level to the laboring classes, the people’s classes. Meaning you’ll find among them people who work in market stalls, people who are unemployed, farmers… people who really made the revolution in 2011, who bore witness to it or were injured – that’s them, poor people or who’ve been impoverished or unemployed,” Ben Khelifa said.

Ben Khelifa applies this class analysis to the outcomes of the 2011 revolution, claiming that the reason why the revolution did not economically benefit the people who actually led it is that other classes in society redirected the revolution. According to his analysis, some parts of the middle class supported the revolution and then the wealthy or “bourgeois” classes made some sacrifices but ensured the revolution was “aborted” before it fully succeeded.

“Later, when it [the revolution] reached the capital, naturally there were people who were activists, in parties, in unions, media people, lawyers in the middle class, they supported them, published information, they’re the ones that gave them political slogans…But the people who really rose up and…burned police stations, they’re the ones who really brought down the regime. Not us, the middle class. They are the people who really forced the system to sacrifice its head, which was Ben Ali,” said Ben Khelifa, who is also the editor-in-chief of the news website Inhiyez.

For Amri, who translated the demands into English, one reason she did so is because she sees a lot of parallels between the struggles in Tunisia and elsewhere, so she thought that making the ideas and proposal of Tunisian activists available to others around the world might be useful to them.

“A lot of what is happening is struggles that relate to other places…Even in police repression, I was in the U.S. this summer and these were the same, there was a very similar conversation. I felt like it spoke really well across spaces, so we might as well have these conversations,” Amri told Meshkal.

Amri, after sharing her English translation of the “People’s Program” on Twitter, commented that “the political work that has been happening in Tunisia lately and in the past decade is worth noting. Many things have been theorized brilliantly when it comes to the end of policing, economic sovereignty, anti-capitalist struggles, and the terms of social justice.”

Another reason Amri said she translated the program was because she “really liked how concrete it was and how possible it was…even as there are broader thing like colonialism and class struggle, but things like transportation and unemployment compensation are very feasible.”