Q&A: Tunisia’s protest leaders vow to keep up pressure
Tunis, Tunisia – Large protests broke out across Tunisia this month over a government decision to impose strict economic and tax reforms that increased the price of basic goods.
The anti-austerity protests come as Tunisians mark the seventh anniversary of the fall of longtime leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was forced from power after a popular revolution in 2011.
Rallies have been held in Tunis, the capital, and elsewhere across the country, led by the civil movement “Fech Nestannew” (What are we waiting for?). Nearly 800 protesters have been arrested, according to United Nations figures, including 200 people between the ages of 15 and 20.
A 2016 deal between Tunisia and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is a large reason behind the austerity measures, critics say. The four-year, $2.8bn IMF loan is tied to a promise by the Tunisian government to carry out economic and social reforms.
The government’s 2018 budgetary law, which came into effect this month, has been the focus of protesters’ anger, as it brought price hikes to basic goods, such as food and gas, and the value-added tax.
Al Jazeera spoke to Tunis-based protest organiser Warda Atig, 25, about how the Fech Nestannew movement came about, its demands, and whether the Tunisian government may revise its economic policies.
Al Jazeera: What is the idea behind Fech Nestannew?
Warda Atig: Fech Nestannew is a movement created by Tunisian youth after the government’s finance act of 2018 came into effect. Following this act, the prices went up and the state stopped recruiting for public sector jobs.
That’s why we decided to create this movement, in order to push the government to cancel this financial measure.
Al Jazeera: How did your protests begin and when?
Atig: When we first heard about this law, in November and December of last year, several youth factions from the different progressive political parties organised discussions [about] what the law was and what the impact of the law would be on society.
We were waiting for the government to make the law official and we chose the date of our first action to be January 3. The date is very symbolic because, on January 3, 1984, there was the Intifada al-Khubez (bread uprising) in Tunisia [over an increase in the price of bread].
On January 3, we made a declaration in front of the municipal theatre [on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in downtown Tunis] and we distributed pamphlets with our demands. We were about 50 activists.
Al Jazeera: What are those demands?
Atig: We want the government to end the increase in prices, cancel the moratorium on recruiting in the public sector, provide security and healthcare, end privatisation and put forward a national strategy to counter corruption.
These demands [are in response to] decisions taken by the government … [and] they are within the context of the finance act of 2018. So we are asking [the government] to cancel this act.
If they don’t cancel it, they will privatise national companies, they will not fight corruption, they will continue to increase prices. We are explaining to people that we have to say no to this act.
Al Jazeera: Protests have taken place across Tunisia. How did these different regions get involved in your movement and do you have a coordinated strategy?
Atig: First, we created a group on Facebook. Then, there were many reactions from people in other regions. People started to ask themselves, “What are we waiting for?”
People from student unions and other young people who were very active regionally also got involved.
It started here (Tunis) with different groups, including student unions and groups of unemployed graduates. Everyone here helped spread this campaign … and what happened in Tunis happened in all the other regions.
This isn’t only [a movement] for Tunis; it’s for all of Tunisia.
Al Jazeera: The government has accused protesters of looting and engaging in acts of violence. How do you respond to people who have criticised your protests as violent?
Atig: First of all, our campaign has no relation to violence or breaking things.
In Kasserine, the police caught someone while he was giving money to protesters and urging them to break things … This type of thing is known to happen, even during Ben Ali’s time, when people from the ruling party encourage people to commit acts of violence in order to discredit social movements.
The government’s response to our movement has been to arrest us. They broke into our houses in the middle of the night. There are Facebook pages belonging to the ruling parties that distorted our reputations. Even the governmental media tried to give a bad image to our campaign.
Al Jazeera: This movement appears in large part to be led by educated, urban youth. How do you bridge a possible gap between the organisers and the general Tunisian public most affected by the state’s austerity measures?
Atig: The criticism only comes from people who belong to the ruling parties. They say these people of Fech Nestannew belong to the [block of leftist opposition parties called the] Popular Front.
They say, [we] want to take over the authority [and we] want to be in power so that’s why [we] are taking advantage of the people.
But our relationship with regular people is very good. We chose Fech Nestannew, a phrase in the local Tunisian dialect [of Arabic], so it would be easy for everyone to understand.
Al Jazeera: Why do you believe the 2018 finance act is harmful to Tunisians?
Atig: The government itself confessed that the tenets of this act would make people suffer … unemployed people, the poor and workers.
Poor people pay taxes and value-added tax, while they increase the salaries of ministers and members of parliament. Many people who were corrupt during the Ben Ali era were granted pardons in the context of a reconciliation act.
The poor are footing the bill.
Al Jazeera: These anti-austerity protests are coinciding with the anniversary of the 2011 revolution that toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Was this done on purpose and if so, do you hope to use the timing to galvanise support?
Atig: January is very famous [for protests] in Tunisia. In 2011, and even last year, there was a movement in January. In addition to that, the finance act came into effect in January. January 3 is also the anniversary of the  bread protests.
All these circumstances contributed to our movement coinciding with the anniversary of the revolution.
Al Jazeera: What happens if the government agrees to cancel the finance law? Will this movement continue?
Atig: If they cancel this finance act, OK, the campaign will dissolve. But if they cancel the act and present the same procedures only under a different name, we will continue.
Al Jazeera: Are you hopeful they will cancel it?
Atig: No. [Laughs]
Al Jazeera: Why not?
Atig: We are doing this in order to make people aware that the ruling people right now are here to enforce the dictates of the IMF. At least we are continuing the revolutionary process.
As long as Tunisia continues these deals with the IMF, we will continue our struggle. We believe that the IMF and the interests of people are contradictory.
Al Jazeera: The Tunisian prime minister recently told people that 2018 will be the last difficult year and after this, things will get better. How do you respond to that?
Atig: We can’t wait any longer.
That’s why we called [our movement], “What are we waiting for?”