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The Second Tunisian Revolution

Protests expanded across the country this week in reminiscence of the Arab Spring. Unemployment is high, and citizens are unhappy with the pace and direction of reform.

Five years after the Arab Spring that shook the Middle East and North Africa, Tunisia is bursting up in flames again. The images that arrived from the city of Sfax, where a young merchant set himself on fire Wednesday after his goods were confiscated by the authorities, is reminiscent of the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose act kicked off the Tunisian Revolution on Dec. 17, 2010.

This time, the protest started from Kasserine, in central Tunisia not far from Sidi Bouzid, after a 24 year old young man, Ridha Yahyaoui, who was threatening to kill himself because his name had been deleted from a list of hirings, got struck and died when climbing an electricity pole. Protests to yet another injustice spread across the whole country: Gafsa, Jendouba, Tozeur, Gabes, Medenine and Tunis. Police are repressing the demonstrations, but also a policeman was killed in recent clashes. The slogans of five years ago returned with force: work, freedom, dignity. Although the transition is still in progress, citizens believe it’s going too slow and in the wrong direction. After five years, there is very strong disappointment, especially among young people. “It is time to act. Or nothing will prevent the outbreak of a second revolution,” said president Beji Caid Essebsi on Dec. 17, the anniversary of the beginning of the revolution.

Is this the start of a second revolution? The protesters occupy the same spaces as in 2011, especially the central Bourguiba Avenue, in front of the Interior Ministry building, a symbol of repression in the days of Ben Ali. Now the situation is different, and the demands express the great social unrest. The main demand concerns work — there are 800,000 unemployed people, 36 percent of whom have secondary and post-secondary education — and “we refuse to emigrate or end up in the terrorist or smuggling networks,” said a representative of the Union of Unemployed Graduates (UCD), quoted by the Tunisian daily La Presse. That’s not idle talk; Tunisians make up the largest contingent — 5,500, according to the U.N. — of foreign fighters in Syria.

Wednesday’s demonstration in Tunis was organized by the UCD and the General Union of Students, which blames the government: “Prime Minister Habib Essid has two choices. Either he finds an urgent and effective solution to the unemployment problem or he goes away.” So far the demonstrations have not been endorsed by the parties, and participants prefer to keep politicians away, even though they fear the infiltration of Islamic militants.

The demands directly implicate the government. Although Essid is at the Davos conference, Wednesday evening the ministers met with representatives of Kasserine to enact some emergency measures that were announced yesterday by the spokesman Khaled Chouket. “In regards to unemployment: We decided to hire 5,000 unemployed through new recruitment mechanisms. Another 1,400 will be hired through existing mechanisms and 500 with small projects funded by the National Solidarity Bank with 6,000,000 dinars (€3 million).” Chouket also announced the formation of a national committee that will investigate corruption cases, taking the necessary steps to fight it. State lands will be privatized. The government spokesman acknowledged that many infrastructure projects are blocked and announced nine other projects for the reconstruction of bridges and roads. The government plans to allocate 135 million dinars for the construction of housing in the region of Kasserine.

Clearly, the protests have shaken the government. If these promises are kept and work, it will be a beginning. However, Kasserine is not the only city suffering from the lack of development and crisis. The economy is stagnant. Growth in 2015 was 0.5 percent. The president had proposed an “economic reconciliation” bill that would suspend all embezzlement proceedings against members of the Ben Ali regime, to encourage investment. But for many Tunisians this law draft, still to be voted in Congress, is a sort of corruption recycling, not to mention that the networks of the former single party RCD have not been dismantled but rather were re-formed in the Nidaa Tounes party, which won the 2014 elections. Even Islamists who occupied seats in the institutions have remained in place.

Nidaa Tounes, the party founded in 2012 by Essebsi, is going through a serious crisis, which Essebsi worsened in the recent party congress by appointing his son, Hafed, as the new party leader. Evidently, the authoritarian methods have not changed. Nidaa Tounes, a centrist secular party, had won the elections because it was a bulwark against the Islamists of Ennahda, and instead now they govern together. Not only that. It had won 86 seats against 69 of the Islamists, but after 20 dissident representatives — who consider the agreement a betrayal of the voters — left the party, Ennahda is now the top party. It’s keeping a low profile, however, trying to accredit a more moderate stance, putting religion in the back burner. The impression is that Nidaa Tounes is bleeding and is preparing its revenge. But as they say, revenge is a dish best served cold.