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Poor Economic Conditions Spur Protests Across Tunisia


And in Tunisia, people yesterday were celebrating the seventh anniversary of the day that country forced its dictator from power. That was an act that set the stage for the Arab Spring. Of all the countries in the Middle East that tried to throw off autocratic rule, Tunisia has really fared the best. It has not succumbed to war like Syria or Libya or a strongman-style president like in Egypt. But Tunisia right now appears in crisis. The economy is so bad, it has sparked protests and violence around the country. And NPR's Ruth Sherlock is in the capital, Tunis. Hi, Ruth.


GREENE: So what do things feel like right now amid these protests?

SHERLOCK: Well, pretty concerning. There has been nighttime protests in the capital in two districts, and police were firing tear gas. It seems some protesters threw rocks. And then near the Algerian border, there was protesters trying to cut off roads, and police fired gas bombs. More than 800 people have been arrested in the past week. I should say, though, that yesterday, there was also a peaceful gathering to mark the anniversary of the ouster of Zine Ben Ali, the former president. And that was - you know, that was kind of mass celebration with people saying, we have freedom of expression. So freedom of expression now in this - emerge in sort of this new democracy. But also huge problems with the country's economy.

GREENE: Such competing emotions. Well, let's talk about the protests over the economy. What exactly are people angry about?

SHERLOCK: Well, specifically, they're furious at a new budget that came in in January, and that's got tax hikes, which means that basic goods are costing more. And the broader picture here is that the government is struggling to pay back a loan by the International Monetary Fund. And to meet their requirements, they've imposed these austerity measures. That means they're not creating any more public sector jobs.

So it has massive unemployment hit - 15 percent, 25 percent in some areas. And it's especially hitting the youth. And it's the educated youth. People with university degrees cannot find jobs. I spoke to one lady, Nowreh Dhausi (ph) from this new movement called What Are We Waiting For? - which is a young people's movement trying to fight against these austerity measures. I asked her how she defines the austerity measures.

NOWREH DHAUSI: When you have to be starving and poor enough in order to let the states have more money and the government have a lot of money. Yeah, classics (laughter).

SHERLOCK: So not very sympathetic there. I pointed out that the government is under pressure to pay back these loans. And so maybe this is something they have to do. This is how she responded.

DHAUSI: I don't care what the World Bank said. I don't care what the government measures are. It is just me and the Tunisian people starving, and that's it, you know?

SHERLOCK: That shows you what a tough challenge the government has. It's between a rock and a hard place. It has to kind of meet these constraints. But it also has to deal with the fact that many people are desperate, without jobs.

GREENE: Desperate but also able to freely express their anger, which I would imagine creates a moment when some people are looking at these seven years, and they like where this country has gone.

SHERLOCK: Yeah, exactly. You know, people I spoke to at the anniversary protests said there's a kind of celebration. People said they're no longer afraid of the knock on the door by the secret police for expressing their views. But now the challenge is, you know, they're going to express their views, but how do they - how does the government find a solution to kind of match what the people want now?

GREENE: NPR's Ruth Sherlock speaking to us from the Tunisian capital, Tunis. Ruth, thanks.

SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.