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Marginalized Tunisians Organize to Demand Economic and Social Change

Field workers take a break

Diverse social movements have emerged in Tunisia over the past decade and the country has seen myriad protests focusing on a range of issues, from debt relief for farmers to the alleviation of the Covid-19 pandemic to police brutality. Marginalized residents, including those in the country’s south who have seen little investment in their region while natural resources are extracted for the economic benefit of the north and international corporations, engage in what author Sami Zemni calls “an environmentalism of the poor.” This environmentalism, such as that of the Kamour movement in the southern governorate of Tataouine, call attention to environmental concerns while demanding jobs, access to land, the provision of and access to services, and the redistribution of wealth.


Political Cartoon

Cartoon showing wealthy urban Tunisians at a cafe; rural Tunisians protest from the country
Wealthy urban Tunisians at a cafe; rural Tunisians protest from the country’s periphery. Cartoon by Deena Mohamed.
Maping showing resource extraction in Tunisia, which is concentrated in the marginalized periphery.
Resource extraction in Tunisia has historically been concentrated in the marginalized periphery. Despite being resource rich, the periphery’s inhabitants continue to experience high poverty rates. The center map highlights administrative areas with both extractive sites and poverty rates above 16.7 percent. The governorate of Tataouine, where some protests have been concentrated, is outlined in black.


“Tunisia’s Marginalized Redefine the Political” by Sami Zemni from MERIP

Spring 2021

Tunisians took their grievances to the streets again in January when peaceful demonstrations broke out in cities across the country. Protesters mobilized amidst a continuing social and economic crisis and against the backdrop of a three-day COVID-19 lockdown that began on January 14, 2021—the tenth anniversary of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s flight from Tunisia. At night young people violated the curfew and clashed with police forces who responded with violent repression and thousands of arrests.

The National Campaign to Support the Social Struggles, a committee coordinating the protests, blamed the entire political class for the economic crisis and the country’s inadequate response to the health crisis in its January 25 statement, titled “The People’s Program Against the Elites’ Program.” The campaign accused “the bourgeoisie” that has ruled Tunisia since 2011—when protesters toppled Ben Ali’s regime during the Arab uprisings—of diverting attention from social and economic problems through endless political bickering over ministerial appointments and conflicts between the president, the prime minister and the parliament. Confronting the elites and their allies across society, the campaign proposed developing a program to separate “forces aligned with the people and those of the bourgeoisie and of colonialism.” Covering a range of issues, from debt relief for farmers and financial aid to alleviate the impact of the pandemic to police brutality, their formulation builds on the work of diverse social movements that have emerged within the country over the last decade.

A few months before the National Campaign’s statement, on November 8, 2020, the government led by Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi signed an agreement with demonstrators in Al-Kamour in the southern province of Tataouine, which ended a nearly four-year wave of social mobilizations. The government’s acceptance of the protestors’ demands, and the new protests that engulfed the country, are testimony to the growing political salience of regional economic and social inequalities and the rising strength of the marginalized—those excluded from accessing social, political, economic and natural resources. More than ever, Tunisia is witnessing the growing activism and anger of its marginalized populations, who were the first to rise up against Ben Ali and his regime. The post-revolutionary governments have, however, failed to address the root causes of their anger, including unemployment, limited access to health care and education, clientelism, corruption and nepotism. The ongoing protests by the marginalized reflect the fact that the Tunisian revolution not only sought to secure political freedoms and democratic institutions. It also pushed for social and economic development and an end to the enduring inequalities that divide the coastal areas of the country from the peripheralized and marginalized interior.

In Tunisia, where economically excluded groups are also politically marginalized, the question of marginality is the most pressing political issue. A focus on those populations who are subject to multiple forms of economic, political and social marginalization requires rethinking and reassessing the dynamics of contention, protest and resistance beyond the classic institutions of political representation such as parties and labor unions.

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