A Government Born In Protest, Faces Widespread Protest

Jan 16, 2018
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A government born in protest is facing widespread protest. Tunisians overthrew a dictator in 2011, an event that brought on the wider Arab Spring. The seventh anniversary of that moment has arrived with a more democratic government that has left many citizens dissatisfied.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

INSKEEP: In recent days, protests swept the capital, Tunis, and authorities arrested hundreds of protesters. So what's driving them into the streets? We asked Tunisia's ambassador to the United States, Faycal Gouia.

FAYCAL GOUIA: Of course, we lived a transition. It's a huge transition politically, socially, economically. People have very high expectations beyond the capabilities of the country and the government. Actually, the government has many limitations.

INSKEEP: What are the things that people want that the government is unable to deliver?

GOUIA: Mostly jobs. More than 60 percent of the population's under 30, and the government is providing these young men and women with education. Education in Tunisia is free from the kindergarten to university. And once they graduate, they are seeking, also, jobs from the government, and the government, because of the economic situation not only in the country, but also in the region, is not able to provide all these young people with jobs.

INSKEEP: This has been a problem in Egypt, other Arab countries, we could mention.

GOUIA: So many countries are suffering from the same problem, but I think this is a very good asset. It's an opportunity for Tunisia because once the economy is back to normal, we have a real human capital that we can use for Tunisia's development.

INSKEEP: We're told that there is also a very specific objection to specific government decisions, that Tunisia owes money to the International Monetary Fund, and to help pay that, the taxes have been raised.

GOUIA: Not really. This is not the truth. Of course, we have some commitments with the IMF, but the government is adjusting its economy and its finance. The increase is very slight. I'll give you an example. There were some increases in gasoline.

INSKEEP: I'll tell you, when gas prices go up in the United States, many people complain.

GOUIA: But it's slightly...

INSKEEP: I'm sure it's true there, as well.

GOUIA: It's only 5 cents. But, of course, the impact could be felt later on. But in reality, it will not change, you know, the life of the people in the country but...

INSKEEP: But it becomes politically explosive, doesn't it?

GOUIA: Exactly.

INSKEEP: ...When you say, we're raising taxes, however slightly, to pay foreign creditors, people can - you can get up a crowd to protest that.

GOUIA: The reason is not that, exactly, but the reason is to balance our finance.

INSKEEP: Let's just say, hypothetically, that some of these protesters came to your door, came to your residence here in Washington, D.C., and just said, you know, we're very unhappy; it's been seven years since the revolution in Tunisia; tell me what's better. How would you answer them? What's better?

GOUIA: This government is doing very well when it comes to economic reforms, when it comes to creation of jobs. And, of course, the expectations of the people are very high, and sometimes, they are impatient. Seven years, remember, in a life of a nation is not that long, and...

INSKEEP: Is the economy growing in Tunisia even if the job market is not quite catching up?

GOUIA: The economy for the first time is growing. For this first years after the revolution, it was a problem for the growth, but now the growth is back. We are expecting 3 percent for 2018 and 4 percent for 2020.

INSKEEP: As of early this week, as I understand it, the United Nations reported about 800 arrests of protesters. Has the government been using, in your view, the correct amount of force and coercion?

GOUIA: Eight hundred - I think it's a bit high. The last numbers given by the Ministry of Interior is about less than 500.

INSKEEP: OK.

GOUIA: And these people are arrested because they were using violent way to protest. And people who want to protest - they are free to do it in Tunisia. It is a constitutional right. But if you want to protest, you do it during the day, not at night, and you never aggress people or destruct public and private properties. So these people are arrested, and they will have a fair trial. And believe me, the number of the police and security agents that were injured in these events is much higher than the people who were protesting, so that means that the violence is coming from the protesters, not from the security agents.

INSKEEP: Ambassador, thanks for coming by. I've enjoyed this.

GOUIA: Thank you very much for the invitation, and I wish you Happy New Year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELUVIUM'S "REPOSE IN BLUE")

INSKEEP: That was Tunisia's ambassador to the United States, Faycal Gouia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.