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The current resurgence of Arab Spring protests in Tunis...

Defend Truth


The current resurgence of Arab Spring protests in Tunisia goes far deeper than a leadership crisis


Dr Chidochashe Nyere is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation, University of Johannesburg. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of Pretoria, where he has been a lecturer. He researches Africa’s positionality in international relations and decolonial studies.

Is it really an issue of leadership crises that are afflicting Tunisians, or is there something else, perhaps more sinister than meets the eye? While leadership crises persist, the very global economic structure that envelops Tunisia is what is fundamentally flawed.

The demonstrations against President Kais Saied in Tunisia – which started on 13 March 2022 – are a stark reminder that the issues that ignited the Arab Spring protests in 2010 have not been sufficiently resolved, 12 years later. At the core of those protests were the untenable socioeconomic conditions that Tunisia faced at the time.

On 17 December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a street trader, set himself alight in protest against the Ben Ali-led government’s failure to address the economic quagmire in Tunisia. He died as a result of the burns and that marked the beginning of the Arab Spring protests. Then, as it is today, food prices were unregulated, fuel was expensive, and that meant basic commodities were unaffordable for the common person.

As a result of the protests, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia on 13 January 2011, which meant he would be absent from the presidential election scheduled for 23 October that year. I argue that a leadership crisis was heightened at that moment in Tunisia, seeing that Ben Ali had stayed in power for 23 years; it spelt that there was a crisis of leadership already. His flight from Tunisia only exacerbated it.

In Tunisia today, the citizens are protesting against the untenable economic situation in their country yet again. Three presidents later, the economic conditions that sparked the Arab Spring protests persist. President Mohamed Moncef Marzouki was chosen to be the interim president (2011-2014) following Ben Ali’s departure.

President Beji Caid Essebsi was democratically elected in 2014 and served until his demise, in office, in 2019. Suffice it to note that Essebsi has been the only democratically elected leader of Tunisia after the departure of Ben Ali. Saied is another caretaker president, who really is battling for legitimacy since he has no mandate from the citizens of Tunisia to hold the highest office in the land.

Thus, we have seen four presidents in 10 years in Tunisia. This is emblematic of volatility and instability. Consequently, the current protests may be misconstrued to be about the instability and Saied’s illegitimacy. Be that as it may, I differ with that position, as will be apparent in this writing.

If it was Ben Ali who was problematic, why is it that 10 years after his departure, the economic problems persist? This compels us to delve deeper and ask whether it is really an issue of leadership crises that are afflicting Tunisians, or is there something else, perhaps more sinister than meets the eye? While issues of leadership crises persist, the very global economic structure that envelops Tunisia is what is fundamentally flawed. The economic structure of capitalism is hierarchical and racial; at the apex is the white race and at the base is the black race, which includes all non-white races. Capitalism was designed to subjugate blackness and asymmetrically advantage whiteness. Hence its infamous reference as white monopoly capital. 

The global economy is controlled by the Bretton Woods institutions (World Bank, International Monetary Fund), the World Trade Organization and others. This system measures all currencies against the US dollar, in order to control the value of other currencies. The dollar system controls what currency gains what value. All currencies that are more valuable than the American dollar are located in the Global North, with the exception of currencies in the oil-rich Middle Eastern countries that are not pegged to the dollar system and are dependent on oil-market value.

The rest are where they are supposed to be, at the bottom, according to the rationale of this global market system. The ongoing protests in Tunisia reveal that the economic situation in Tunisia has not changed; if anything, it has recalibrated.

The protests in Tunisia today are a sign of a reticulation of the global economic structure that seeks to keep countries of the Global South in general, but African countries particularly, in perpetual subjugation and subservience to the Global North. This is why, in 2011, civil society organisations hijacked the Arab Spring protests in the first place.

Today, as they did then, they are championing the so-called liberal roadmap which has all the hallmarks of coloniality – the continuation of colonialism by other means, in its physical absence. This tells us that the once colonial masters of Tunisia are funding these civil society organisations to overtake once more the noble cause that Tunisians aim to achieve by these current protests. Their aim is not to bring an aberration of the socioeconomic conditions in Tunisia, but to deflect attention by highlighting issues of illegitimacy of the current caretaker president.

However, that is a non-issue; the bone of contention is really whether or not the economic structure that envelops Tunisia can be transformed. This is the plight of Tunisians, to be unchained from the economic slavery as a result of the Western-dominated world economic system undergirded by Western modernity.

Tunisia is heavily dependent on Russia for its food security; specifically, it imports most of its wheat and cooking oil from the latter. With the Russia-Ukraine war, it will affect Tunisia gravely as prices of these commodities will soar, if they have not already. It is common knowledge that the war is a continuation of the US-USSR tensions of the Cold War by other means. Ukraine is a proxy of the US. In that light, the US aims to offset Russia’s influence on the African continent. Particularly, the bilateral relations between Russia and Tunisia are threatening to the US’s global hegemonic project.

It makes sense, therefore, that the US will use the Russia-Ukraine impasse to its advantage in two ways. The first one is by funding civil society organisations to hijack the agenda of the protests and, in turn, lead the protests in Tunisia so as to give credence to a narrative that the US’s intervention is needed in Tunisia. This will sustain the bluff of a narrative that the US is the saviour and panacea of all African problems.

The other avenue is responding to the calls by the civil society organisations and arrive under the pretext of intervening – which is essentially tantamount to an invasion of Tunisia, as they did in Libya in 2011. Of course, the intervention is not for the benefit of Tunisia, but to reconfigure the global economic system that has come under siege in Tunisia due to the intermittent protests.

Therefore, coloniality of the economy is what is really at play in Tunisia. There is always a nexus between world events.DM



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