Yesterday, on 31 October 2015, thousands of Tunisians took to the streets demanding the establishment of a benefits system to alleviate the difficulties of over 500,000 unemployed and protesting the lack of policies dedicated to tackling the rampant poverty across the country and, in particular, the inner regions.
Mohamed El-Hechmi Hamdi, former presidential candidate and leader of the Tayyar al-Mahabba party, had called for the protest last month, appearing on a number of local television channels and stressing that the government had its priorities skewed. Pointing to the national reconciliation law, President Sibsi’s first major initiative which protects businessmen from being brought to court over offences prior to 2011, and the government bailout of three banks, Hamdi argued that the government were more interested in protecting the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the established ‘businessmen’ rather than the struggles of the poor.
Indeed, Hamdi’s facebook page has been filled with his visits to poorer areas, highlighting poor living conditions and the inability of many to access basic healthcare services. The most notable of these incidents is the case of Hadi Messoudi who required a hospital analysis of his heart. He was told that he was required to pay 30 dinars (approximately GBP12 or USD19). Unable to pay, Messoudi described how he went to the local governorate to seek assistance. However he was beaten and kicked out. Interviewed by a local journalist, Messoudi lamented his situation stating that he would search for any opportunity to leave the country. One week later, Messoudi burnt himself, leaving behind a wife and six children.
Messoudi’s situation is not unique. Since the revolution, over 500 people have burnt themselves in protest at their dire situation. More puzzling however, is the presence of a media campaign that asserts that Tunisia is ‘on the right track’ and that a major problem behind the rise of unemployment is that ‘the youth do not wish to work’.
More so, Hamdi’s call for a benefits system has seen fierce opposition amongst the more established elite who assert that Tunisia does not have the means to implement such a system and that Hamdi is pandering to the poor. Hamdi has responded in turn, citing that the establishment of the benefits system should have taken priority over bailing out three banks who had given loans to rich businessmen who had no intention of ever paying them back, and should take priority over raising the salaries of government officials. Hamdi has also stressed that the days of rich businessmen avoiding tax and the government covering this by increasing taxes on the poor must stop.
In other words, Hamdi asserts that when it comes to the protection of established interests, the government is always able to find the necessary funds. Yet when it comes to implementing measures to prevent over 500 people burning themselves, the government claims that patience is needed as it continues to seek foreign direct investment.
Despite claims from the elite that Hamdi has no real support from Tunisians, tens of thousands of people responded to his call for protests and filled the main street (Bourguiba Street) in the capital Tunis demanding the implementation of a benefits system. Hamdi launched into an impassioned speech declaring that without popular pressure from the people, the government would never respond to their needs. In what appears to be a continuation of a policy to restrict Hamdi’s growing influence, local news outlets played down the size of the protests, with some claiming that ‘a number of people attended’ or ‘a few hundred’ and others not even delivering news of the protests in any form whatsoever.
Originally considered an outlier, Hamdi stormed Tunisian politics in 2011, with his Popular Petition securing second place in terms of votes in the first parliamentary elections. In 2015, Hamdi announced his candidacy for the presidency. Despite not even being considered in the top 5 of potential winners in pre-election polls, Hamdi not only managed to secure fourth place, but also swept to victory in Sidi Bouzid, the city from which the Arab Spring which changed the face of the Middle East began.