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With Its Economy In Crisis, Tunisia Sees Protests Across The Country


Seven years ago this week, Tunisia's dictator fled the country. That's how the so-called Arab Spring started. Pro-democracy protests spread across the Middle East after that. Many of those movements ended up in conflict or chaos. Tunisia formed a democracy. In recent days, though, there have been violent protests across Tunisia because of the poor economy, and also anniversary celebrations. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports from the capital, Tunis.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: In downtown Tunis, on the wide, tree-lined Habib Bourguiba Avenue, thousands gathered to mark the anniversary of the day Tunisians forced their dictator, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, from power. On one part of the street, followers of the religiously conservative Ennahda political party chant and play songs from the revolution. The women wear headscarves.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).

SHERLOCK: But beside them, liberals celebrate their way. A scantily clad bellydancer moves sensually to French pop music on stage. And these liberals and conservatives seem to revel in their differences. They laugh and yell insults as they pass each other. The one thing everyone does agree on is that freedom of expression is the main reward of the 2011 revolution. Here's how Chehab Bendala, a factory worker at the anniversary celebrations over the weekend, puts it.

What changed in your life before and after the revolution?

CHEHAB BENDALA: Hurriyah, freedom. Yes. Now I have liberty to speak to anyone and anywhere.

SHERLOCK: Tunisia's revolution in 2011 set the stage for the Arab Spring. And of all the countries in the Middle East that tried to throw off their dictators, Tunisia has fared the best. It's not succumbed to wars like in Syria, Yemen or Libya, or a strongman-style president like in Egypt. But its democracy is fragile. Meherzia Labidi, a leading female member of Parliament, reflects on this at her office. Tunisia has already gone through nine governments since the revolution seven years ago. She says they've all failed to give Tunisians, especially young Tunisians, what they're asking for - a better economy.

MEHERZIA LABIDI: The government, one after the other, have not answered the expectations of Tunisian youth. This is really the failure. This is where we failed as politician.

SHERLOCK: That failure has plunged Tunisia into crisis. The government is struggling to pay off an International Monetary Fund loan and has imposed austerity measures that have shrunk the public sector. But that means fewer jobs at a time when unemployment is at 15 percent.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

SHERLOCK: Anger and resentment have boiled over into mass demonstrations the last week, some of them violent. Some 800 people have been arrested. All this has given rise to a new movement led by young people whose name translates in English to, what are we waiting for? It's only a few weeks old, but it seems to be having an impact. Nawra Douzi, a spokeswoman, was at the anniversary celebrations. She's just 21 and wears a T-shirt with her group's slogan on the front and a checked keffiyeh scarf. I ask how she defines the austerity measures.

NAWRA DOUZI: Well, when you have to be starving and poor enough to - in order to let the state have more money and the government have a lot of money. Yeah. Classic.

SHERLOCK: The movement isn't calling to overthrow the government at this stage, she says. But young people have to have a future in Tunisia, she warns, otherwise the government risks the very future of the country itself. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Tunis. 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.