The Tunisian Tinderbox – A Society Set to Explode

In 2011, the Tunisian people overthrew the regime of Ben Ali, the long-standing and corrupt ruler of Tunisia. Today, a decade and a half later, little has changed, though the country has passed through elections, strikes, demonstrations, and more upheaval.

Underneath the surface, the main problem persists. Unemployment is over 16%, and inflation has hit Tunisia just as hard as anywhere else. The price of commodities has risen by more than 10% last year. The situation is beginning to look a lot like 2011 all over again, when similar conditions led to a social explosion and the toppling of governments.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that Tunisia is a producer of phosphates, essential chemical components of fertilizers. Fertilizer production on a global scale was severely disrupted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and Tunisian phosphate profits soared, ten times as much as before. Much of this wealth has been pocketed by corrupt officials and managers of the state phosphate company.  Meanwhile in the phosphate-producing region of Tunisia, Gafsa, people face unemployment and inflation. In addition to phosphates, Tunisia is a major exporter of agricultural products, and some oil and natural gas. The profits from these lucrative industries never reach the hands of the people who do the work.

The Tunisian government knows what to fear. In July 2021, Tunisian president Kais Saied suspended parliament and dissolved the government, then pushed through a constitution that consolidated power in his hands. Taking a page out of the right-wing playbook in the U.S. and other countries, Saied claimed that his opponents were settling immigrants in the country, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, to shift the demographics and take power away from so-called real Tunisians. As always, racism is the hiding place of corruption and an excuse for the exercise of power. President Saied has used his power, covered by these accusations, to silence, jail, and expel his political opponents.

What is at stake? While in 2011, Tunisians overthrew a long-standing dictator, they did not change the system of exploitation of Tunisia’s resources by the corrupt government and by international corporations. President Saied’s repressive state has arisen, just like previous governments, to defend this system. But the situation is volatile. This time, another social explosion in Tunisia could be the beginnings of an even deeper change, one that really challenges the exploitation of the Tunisian working majority by the corrupt government and its international corporate clients.