This publication is from Carnegie’s Civic Research Network.
The number of social movements in Tunisia has been growing in recent years. In one noteworthy case, starting in April 2017, hundreds of protesters occupied an oil and gas facility at Kamour in southern Tunisia. After the government accepted the protesters’ main demands in June 2017, the protest ended. The success of this movement seems to signify that the decentralized, highly participatory approach that these Tunisian protesters adopted can sometimes achieve tangible but modest gains when participants make specific achievable demands of their government.
A Local Protest
Kamour is a major valve and pump station for oil extraction in an isolated desert region of Tunisia’s southern governorate of Tataouine. This governorate is one of the country’s most marginalized regions, lacking development projects and enduring harsh climatic conditions. It borders Libya, and its economy suffers from the ongoing civil war there. The governorate’s residents largely voted for the Islamist Ennahdha Party and former president Moncef Marzouki, who has a mixed background of associations with secular, pan-Arab, and leftist thought; this reflects local residents’ deeply held anti-establishment feelings. In April 2017, a group of mostly young and unemployed men from the region decided to organize a sit-in around the station—over the next two months, the protests associated with this movement ranged in size from a few hundred to over 1,000 participants.
The primary reason behind the sit-in was persistent unemployment among local residents: the protesters were essentially asking for jobs. In recent years, this has been a constant problem that no Tunisian government has been able to solve—the national unemployment rate is around 14.8 percent as of 2016. While Tataouine is rich in natural resources, unemployment there is among the highest in the country—around 30 percent. Particularly in places like the villages of Tataouine, Tunisian political parties’ failed promises to improve economic conditions have contributed to disengagement from politics, and even hatred toward the state, among the region’s young people.
The sit-in at Kamour was not the first of its kind. Since the prominent unrest in Gafsa in 2008, which disrupted Tunisia’s phosphate industry, the country’s energy production sites have witnessed dozens of sit-ins, protests, and strikes. Since the fall of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, such events have become more frequent, due to expanded civic freedoms and a relatively greater respect for human rights, coupled with a weaker state apparatus and economic turmoil.
The Protest’s Message and Structure
The Kamour protest was noteworthy both for the concrete demands that demonstrators made and their decentralized, participatory approach. This seems to represent an important turning point for Tunisian civic activism.
Protesters made specific demands with the aim of addressing the region’s chronic unemployment. They accused the central government of stealing their natural resources without recompense. They asked for a fair share of the region’s oil and gas revenues, requesting that 20 percent of these revenues be invested in Tataouine. They also demanded that private companies operating in the country (including in the oil and gas sector) be obliged to create at least 4,500 jobs for local residents, while also insisting that the state invest $40 million in infrastructure and development funds for Tataouine. Unlike in the cases of most previous protests, activists in Kamour focused on the private sector rather than public sector jobs. Protesters also wanted a review of existing oil and gas extraction contracts, as they suspected that the oil and gas companies had benefited from favoritism and had hidden the real value of their sites—these demands somewhat mirrored the wider 2015 Winou El Petrole? (Where is the Oil?) campaign.
As time went by, some protesters raised additional issues. Some demanded a nationalization of natural resources—a popular cause among radical leftists, pan-Arab nationalists, and some Islamist groups. Nevertheless, these added demands remained marginal, and the core group of sit-in participants stuck to their original demands related to employment and development.
Aside from the protesters’ specific demands, the way that they organized and conducted themselves exemplified the decentralized, politically independent forms that Tunisian civic activism has begun to take. For one thing, the logistics of the protests were largely handled by private citizens. Trailer trucks and cars were used to transport hundreds of protesters from different parts of Tataouine to Kamour. Tents were quickly set up, and impromptu facilities for water and food were erected.
This show of force was accompanied by songs, revolutionary slogans, flags, and banners that did not point to any singular political affiliation. The protest movement itself began as a largely independent force that mostly kept its distance from establishment political entities. The protesters at Kamourwere mostly young men between twenty and forty years old. Many of them, after voting for either Ennahdha or former president Marzouki in 2011 and 2014, became disenchanted with the results and turned to protesting instead. Some of them even turned against Ennahdha, which is still part of the government—indeed, the minister of employment who was put in charge of helping resolve the situation in Tataouine, Imed Hammami, is a member of the party. The protesters accused the established political parties of betrayal and expressed their disappointment with traditional civil society organizations. When the government ignored their demands, they organized a general strike in Tataouine, barely including the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT). The UGTT is typically the only force capable of organizing general strikes in Tunisia, and the protesters’ remarkable ability to organize one without its support unsettled the union’s leadership.
The Kamour protests’ financial resources also seem to have been mostly homegrown. According to the movement’s leaders, the campaign was funded by individual donations. Groups of volunteers collected money from Tataouine’s citizens and from their relatives in Tunis and even in France. They aimed to give a sense of financial transparency; every donation was recorded on paper, while some were even filmed or shared on Facebook.
However, that is not to say that the Kamour movement is entirely beyond reproach. Some critics have suggested that the movement’s funds came from rich barons involved in smuggling. The trucks used and the money spent on protesters’ living expenses may point in this direction. Different sources claim that rich people from the region, mainly from the smuggling-enriched elite that grew stronger after 2011, were helping the Kamour sit-in participants. Those claims had little proof to back them, but Minister Hammami alluded to this point in an interview. Furthermore, a number of well-known corrupt figures openly backed the protesters. The reality is probably a mix of local fundraising and smuggler-provided funding.
In terms of publicizing the protesters’ cause, Tunisia’s mainstream media largely ignored them, although Tataouine’s regional radio station reported their activities. Instead, it was through Facebook that most Tunisians heard about the sit-in. A Facebook page and a logo were created in the early weeks of the movement. The sit-in participants elected spokespeople, such as Tarek Haddad, who became the public faces of the movement, regularly posting Facebook videos and talking to the media. But they avoided having a hierarchical leadership structure.
The discourse developed by the Kamour movement’s spokespeople stressed the peaceful nature of their cause, adopting a slogan widely used during the early stages of the Syrian revolution: “selmia” (meaning “peaceful [demonstration]”). The messages on their Facebook page were often conciliatory toward the government and refrained from incendiary insults. This was noteworthy, because such movements have usually been highly confrontational toward the government and state institutions. They also signaled their peacefulness to the army, responsible for protecting the site. Their main motto, however, remained “ar-rakh la” (which translates to “no surrender”).
The Government’s Response
The initial reaction of traditional media outlets and establishment political parties was to criticize but also recognize the legitimacy of the movement. Negotiations between the government and the protesters began shortly thereafter. Prime Minister Youssef Chahed went to Tataouine with a delegation of ministers on April 27. He made a series of promises and even used the “ar-rakh la” motto in his speech at the sit-in.
The protesters disagreed among themselves on how to respond to the government’s offer to engage in dialogue. Some accepted this offer, while others refused and decided to continue the sit-in until their demands were met. This episode contributed to divisions among the protesters, but their disagreements were contained and negotiations were largely kept on track, although a minority of hardcore elements was by then accusing the negotiating team of capitulation. At one point, the negotiations stalled for a time, and increasingly bitter accusations flew back and forth.
At this stage, some members of the government and people close to it tried to discredit the movement by accusing it of being a cover for smugglers and even of being in league with terrorists seeking to bring weapons into Tunisia. The authorities also alluded to the economic cost of the sit-in: the blockade of the valve and the road costs millions of dollars each month. Several foreign companies decided to pull their workers from the region. Other firms expressed their frustration with the ongoing trouble and told their countries’ diplomatic representations that they would not invest in Tunisia anymore.
The opacity of the Kamour protest’s funding, and the fact that some well-known Tunisian mafia-like figures showed their support to the movement, raised many eyebrows. By the second week of May, President Beji Caid Essebsi sought to calm both local and international investors by deploying the army. This angered many activists across the country. Less than two weeks later, the demonstrators closed the valve at the pump station, and subsequent skirmishes between the police and protesters led to one death and dozens of injuries. The protesters retaliated by attacking government offices, burning several buildings, and injuring a number of security forces. Pro-government thugs, meanwhile, assaulted some protest leaders.
In the end, the protesters and some unexpected allies helped ensure that an agreement with the government was reached. The movement triggered a chain reaction of popular support in different parts of the country, and its tactics were even emulated—on a smaller scale—elsewhere. The initially ambivalent UGTT joined the protesters belatedly. The labor union facilitated a new round of negotiations between the government and the sit-in participants. An agreement was eventually reached and was signed by the minister of employment, the governor of Tataouine, the UGTT secretary general, and a representative of the protesters. On June 16, the sit-in was lifted. The government and the private oil and gas companies working in Tataouine accepted most of the protesters’ initial demands, which had been largely included among Prime Minister Chahed’s promises in his April speech. Although the implementation of the agreement has been slow and halting at times, the signed document did alleviate tensions, and the situation has almost returned to normal.
The sit-in at Kamour has ended and can now be added to a long list of protest movements that have emerged organically in post-2011 Tunisia and that have made a significant impact. The Kamour movement should also be seen as part of a global wave of civic activism that has been growing since 2011.
This movement was noteworthy in many respects. The Kamour protesters had no legal structure and no hierarchical leadership. They shied away from any particular political affiliation and concentrated on a fixed number of demands. They relied on social media to disseminate their message, but they also mobilized people in the streets. The sit-in’s self-sufficient organization, open participatory style, mostly peaceful tactics, and realistic demands—along with the government’s understanding and relative openness to dialogue—is a model that barely exists in other Arab countries.
These mixed techniques could perhaps define the future of Tunisian activism. As long as the government is willing to negotiate, and as long as these movements do not produce a disruptive domino effect that spreads all over the country, social wellbeing and peace can perhaps make inroads in Tunisia.
Youssef Cherif is a Tunis-based political analyst and a member of the Carnegie’s Civic Research Network. His Twitter handle is @faiyla.