Protesting for revolution | Michael Jansen - GulfToday

Protesting for revolution

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


In both Tunisia and Lebanon, economic crises have been compounded by mismanagement and corruption, as well as covid.

Tunisia, the only democracy to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, and Lebanon, a quasi-democracy where a political revolt was launched in October 2019, now face economic protests driven by coronavirus restrictions.

Deprived Tunisians and Lebanese fear dying of hunger more than expiring from covid. In Tunisia 200,000 have been infected and 6,300 have died from the virus; in Lebanon there have been 300,000 cases and more than 3,000 deaths.

Despite covid lockdown, Tunisians took to the streets on Jan.14, the 10th anniversary of the fall of the 23-year rule of Zine al-Abidin Ben Ali, to protest 30 per cent unemployment, deepening poverty and a crackdown on dissent.

The lockdown was designed to cut the rate of contagion and pre-empt expected demonstrations by Tunisians supporting those wounded or the families of those killed during the Arab Spring “revolution.” The lockdown failed. Demonstrations by revolutionaries angry over democracy’s failure to deliver on their demands were swelled by youths born after Ben Ali’s fall who also demand “Jobs, Freedom, Dignity!” the 2011 slogan.  

The latest chant, “Neither police nor Islamists, the people want revolution,” is significant as it amounts to rejection of the involvement in governance of the fundamentalist Ennahda Party. Like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt before the crackdown initiated by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Ennahda is the most organised and powerful party in the country.

Popular protests take place largely at night. They have been mounted by working class youths in their own neighbourhoods where they have looted shops and supermarkets and attacked police who have retaliated with beatings, tear gas and arrests.

During the day, traditional middle class political activists have rallied to demand the reform of the system of governance. Although Tunisians vote in elections to choose politicians who form governments, the fossilised bureaucracy and security forces continue to dominate the country.

Human rights groups report there have been more than 1,000 detentions. The government has banned gatherings and imposed curfews and lockdowns until Feb.14. Lebanon has extended its post-holiday lockdown from Jan.25 until Feb.8. Restrictions include a 24-hour curfew, stay-at-home orders for all but essential workers, and grocery shopping limited to home deliveries from supermarkets. These measures have, disproportionately, impacted day labourers and their families, vendors, construction workers, taxi drivers, small shop keepers, and hospitality employees. Tens of thousands are without jobs. Fifty-five per cent live below the poverty level, half this figure in extreme poverty.

The northern port of Tripoli, which became the hub of the October 2019 country-wide rising, has seen nightly rioting and harsh repression by the security forces and army. Tripoli’s municipality was torched and the homes of prominent politicians were besieged. Police have fired tear gas and live rounds and used water cannon against protesters. At least two demonstrators have been killed and scores wounded on both sides. Multiple sympathy rallies have been staged in Beirut and the southern port city of Sidon.

Meanwhile covid cases and deaths continue to soar. Infections spiked after the authorities relaxed restrictions during the Christmas and New Year holidays to allow families to meet and celebrate and thousands of people to mix in restaurants, bars and nightclubs despite dire warnings from the Health Ministry and hospital managements.

Hospitals cannot cope with the situation. Serious cases go from hospital to hospital to find a bed or, when admitted, are treated in an office or in their cars in parking lots. The government has appealed to Lebanese living abroad to purchase ventilators for serious cases as these life-savers are in short supply. The World Bank has allocated $34 million (Dhs125m) to fund vaccines for Lebanon which expects supplies to arrive next month and has already signed up 175,000 on registration lists.

In both Tunisia and Lebanon, economic crises have been compounded by mismanagement and corruption, as well as covid. Tunisia’s economy has deteriorated over the past few years and contracted by 9.2 per cent in 2020 while Lebanon’s economy, beset by currency crash and bank failure, shrank by 19 per cent last year.  

Both countries depend on tourism, which has declined steeply due to covid. Both have suffered from 10-year long wars next door: Tunisia from the Libyan conflict, Lebanon from Syrian warfare. Lebanon has also been impacted by the inflow of a million Syrian refugees, most of them destitute, and US sanctions on financial and trade links between Beirut and Damascus. Due to coronavirus, many Lebanese living abroad have not been able to provide normal levels of aid to family members in Lebanon.

The young seek to leave both Tunisia and Lebanon in search of a better future. Since the

Syrian conflict erupted in 2011, tens of thousands of alienated, unemployed Tunisians have flocked to that country to join Daesh and other radical factions in the belief that conditions in the false “caliphate” would be better than at home. Tunisians constituted the largest contingent of Daesh recruits. The newly installed democratic government encouraged them to go with the aim of decreasing demands for jobs and services which the state could not meet.

Thousands of Tunisians, many from coastal towns, have also migrated to Europe, risking the dangerous Mediterranean crossing in small boats. Smugglers have a roaring business providing passages. Marginalised at home by a government which cannot provide for them, those who succeed are isolated in Europe where they struggle to find employment.

Like Tunisia, Lebanon is a small country with a beautiful landscape but few resources. Although Lebanon has long exported its people, the October 2019 uprising gave students and young professionals the hope that they could effect change. They became disillusioned when the deeply entrenched political class refused to accept reform and obstructed the democratic transformation of the sectarian system of governance installed by France before independence in 1943.

Many were driven to depart after the economy collapsed and covid gripped the population in its deadly embrace. Immigration lawyers are processing hundreds of applications for qualified Lebanese youth seeking to settle in Canada and Australia while poor families and persons from Tripoli and Sidon have set sail in boats for Cyprus with the aim of escaping their failing country, but are either halted before they leave Lebanese waters or returned by the Cypriot coast guard.

In both countries, hopelessness breeds desperation and violent protest.


Related articles

Other Articles