Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi ordered the military to protect the country’s oil and gas fields and other energy and phosphate facilities after protests threatened to disrupt production.“It is a serious decision but it is necessary because the main, fundamental condition for democracy is a state of law and a just and fair state for all its citizens,” Caid Essebsi said during a nationally televised address.
The speech seemed intended to reassure the population and foreign companies operating in Tunisia that measures would be taken to enforce government authority throughout the country, even while democratic expression is safeguarded. Tunisia lost more than $2 billion in potential phosphate exports from 2011-16 because protests blocked production and transport of the mineral, which is a key foreign currency earner.
Political leaders have balked at the idea of sending the army to liberate phosphate production sites occupied by protesters who are demanding hundreds of jobs and more financial resources to develop the region.
It is the first time that Tunisian troops have been deployed to protect industrial installations key to Tunisia’s economic output. The army’s role seems to be a last resort by a government intent on preserving newfound economic momentum after social unrest and jihadist attacks caused a serious economic downturn in the country.
About 1,000 protesters in the southern Tataouine province, where Italy’s ENI and Austrian firm OMV carry out gas operations, have since mid-April been demanding employment opportunities for the region’s young people and an increased share in revenue from the area’s natural resources.
Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed was booed by crowds when he travelled to the province in late April to address the protesters’ demands and announce development and job-creation projects.
The unrest spread to nearby Kebili, as well as Kasserine, a western province, and M’saken, in the east, where protesters attempted to occupy gas and oil facilities.
“Our democratic path has become threatened and the law must be applied but we will respect freedoms and provide protection for organised protests,” Caid Essebsi added.
In Tataouine’s Kamour area, demonstrators have been camping for several weeks in the desert, threatening to blockade roads used by oil and gas companies unless they see more jobs and receive a share of the region’s energy riches.
The protesters dismissed claims by the authorities that development opportunities were lacking because of insufficient resources.
“Anyone willing to demonstrate and protest has to respect the law and the state guarantees such a right and provides the protection of that right,” said Caid Essebsi, “but if these demonstration cause stoppages in production of phosphates, oil and gas, agriculture and tourism, then the state is required to protect the resources of the people.”
Energy Minister Hela Cheikhrouhou said at a news conference that the Tataouine protests stopped a number of foreign companies from producing oil.
Tunisia is a relatively minor producer of oil and gas, generating about 44,000 barrels per day (bpd).
The protests come at a sensitive time for the country, whose leaders are attempting to convey a sense of stability and economic openness to foreign investors. The country is also seeking to build off of last November’s Tunisia 2020 international investment conference, during which foreign investors and international financial institutions pledged a total of $34 billion in investments over the next few years.
Cheikhrouhou said oil production had declined from 100,000 bpd in 2010 to 44,000 bpd because of protests, social unrest, low investment and poor energy legislation. Oil revenue fell from $1.24 billion in 2010 to $1 billion in 2016, she said.
The protests are among the most serious challenges to Chahed’s government, which is the country’s seventh in less than six years. Critics have called for his removal, claiming his government has failed to address economic and social problems.
Caid Essebsi dismissed such calls, saying that having parliamentary or presidential elections early would be reckless, given the country’s economic and security concerns.
“What kind of responsibility does it show to demand early elections? Do not count on me to back this kind of approach,” said Caid Essebsi.
He urged politicians to “respect the rules of the democratic game” with losers and winners respecting the rights of each other.
“Elections in the future will be held in time and they must prepare for them,” he added.
Caid Essebsi attempted to bolster Tunisians’ sense of pride at a time when many are disappointed by the lack of economic and social progress. He urged Tunisians to safeguard the country’s reputation as the rare successful democratic experiment after the “Arab Spring” ripped through the Arab region early in 2011. “All influential states across the world welcomed this achievement and expressed sympathy and readiness to support Tunisia to pursue its path of development and progress,” he said, citing Tunisia’s attendance and invitations to major world gatherings, including the upcoming Group of Seven meeting in Italy. He also cited Tunisia’s participation in the upcoming Arab-Islamic meeting with US President Donald Trump in Saudi Arabia.
Disturbances in southern Tunisia are linked to grievances about development imbalances, accumulated since the country’s independence in 1956, between the relatively rich coastal areas and the rest of the country.
This article by Lamine Ghanmi first appeared in The Arab Weekly