T unisia has long been hailed as the democratic success story of the Arab uprisings, which swept the region seven years ago. Whereas countries like Syria and Yemen plunged into deadly wars, the North African country avoided major bouts of violence, experiencing several peaceful handovers of power after the ouster of longtime ruler Zine Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.
However, this week came as a reminder that despite its relative stability, discontent has been growing over the years. Hundreds of people protested this week in at least 20 different areas of the country, violently clashing with security forces. The demonstrators are incensed by rising prices and demand the government drop the 2018 budget, which includes rises in value-added tax and the introduction of social contributions.
An interior ministry spokesman said 237 people had been arrested on Tuesday while around 50 police officers were injured in clashes. One protester was killed in the town of Tebourba, west of the capital Tunis, on Monday. The ministry spokesman said “criminals” have attacked government buildings, torched cars and blocked roads.
“People are angry and poverty is rising,” one protester told Al Jazeera. Hamma Hammami, the leader of the opposition Popular Front party, vowed to “increase the pace of the protests until the unjust financial law is dropped”, Reuters reported.
Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who heads a coalition government of secular and Islamist parties, has called for calm, stating that people had a right to protest, but not at night.
"People have to understand that the situation is extraordinary and their country is having difficulties, but we believe that 2018 will be the last difficult year for the Tunisians," he said on Tuesday.
Apart from the recent price hikes, unemployment, especially among youth, remains high. Many have been forced to go abroad due to a lack of opportunities at home; Tunisians made up one of the highest foreign fighter contingents in the Islamic State militant group. Several attacks in the country have impacted the tourism industry and foreign investment. The International Monetary Fund told Tunisian authorities last month that they needed to take “urgent action” to reduce the deficit.
Frustration with the economy could also manifest itself in local elections scheduled for later this year. Prime Minister Chahed has a difficult task in front of him.
The pigmeat battle between Russia and Europe
Moscow and Brussels have not exactly seen eye to eye on a lot of issues in the last years. The EU has long accused the Kremlin of having interfered in European affairs, be it in the form of backing pro-Russian groups, conducting spying operations or using its energy power for political gains. Moscow accuses NATO, which counts most EU countries as members, of enlarging eastwards in violation of past promises not to do so after the demise of the Soviet Union.
Things came to a head in 2014 when demonstrators in the Ukrainian capital Kiev protested against Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovych, who eventually fled to Russia. Many in Ukraine’s west were deeply dissatisfied with Mr. Yanukovych’s alignment with Russia. The demonstrations, which led to dozens of deaths, set off a spiral of events which culminated in Russia’s military involvement in Ukraine. In March 2014, the EU introduced sanctions against Russian and Ukrainian officials and EU leaders suspended bilateral talks with Moscow on visa matters and a new trade and investment agreement. More sanctions followed after Russia annexed Crimea in the same year.
But Moscow did not sit idly by, banning the import of food products from the EU, US, Canada, Australia, and Norway in summer 2014. The Kremlin had previously announced a ban of EU pork products. Until then, Russia had been an important export market for European countries, having been the destination of around 25% of all European pigmeat exports.
The World Trade Organisation (WTO), which Russia joined in 2012, ruled two and half years after it was implemented that the pork ban was illegal. Russia had cited cases of African Swine Fever in Poland and Lithuania as the official reason for the ban, which was introduced during the Kiev protests.
The EU is now preparing to step up its pressure on Moscow, pushing to gain back compensation from Russia worth €1.4 billion ($1.68 billion) per year, Politico reports. The WTO last week referred Brussels’ request to arbitration. According to an EU official, the arbitration process would decide on whether the compensation claim was justified and subsequently whether forceful measures could be used against Moscow.
Russian authorities told the WTO in December that the pigmeat measures had been dropped. However, Brussels states that Moscow included pork in the wider food embargo introduced later in 2014, which was based on national security reasons.
“It is a big deal in a sense that usually only a minority of animal health-related issues become a full-blown legal dispute at the WTO,” former WTO official Peter Ungphakorn told Politico.
This is about more than just pigs.
A rare meeting
North Korea’s delegation leader Ri Son Gwon was unequivocal in his message when he met with his South Korean counterparts earlier this week. “All our weapons, including atomic bombs, hydrogen bombs and ballistic missile are only aimed at the United States, not our brethren, nor China and Russia.” Addressing the South Koreans as “our brethren”, Mr. Ri added that he came to the meeting in the demilitarised zone between the two countries to give “invaluable results as the first present of the year”.
Pyongyang’s envoy echoed Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s new year’s speech, in which he reached out to Seoul, introducing the possibility of sending a team to the Winter Olympics in South Korea next month. At this week’s meeting, the first official talks between the two sides in two years, the North pledged to send a delegation of high-ranking officials, athletes as well as a cheering squad to the games. Both sides also agreed to hold military-military talks.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in subsequently praised US President Donald Trump for having made a “huge” contribution to making the talks possible. Despite the fiery rhetoric against the US - Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim have been engaged in a rhetorical sparring match for over a year - Mr. Trump told his South Korean counterpart in a phone call that he was open to hold talks with Pyongyang “at the appropriate time, under the right circumstances”. He added, according to a South Korean statement on the call, that there would “be absolutely no military action as long as inter-Korean talks are ongoing”. The US president had on various occasions threatened to launch strikes against North Korea.
Whereas the Korean talks have been praised by China and others, some question how much progress can be achieved regarding Pyongyang’s nuclear programme. One former US special envoy for negotiations with Pyongyang commented that “North Korea will exploit the Olympics and resume its bad behaviour.” Not talking about the North’s nuclear programme, Joseph Detrani wrote in the Cipher Brief, “will only convince Kim Jong-un that his goal of being recognised and accepted as a nuclear weapons state is achievable - that with time, the US and others will settle for a nuclear North Korea.”
Sports diplomacy has worked in the past. Will it do the trick this time as well?
The price of bread
It was not only in Tunisia that rising prices led to protests. After bread prices almost doubled in Sudan, people took to the streets to voice their anger. Bakers blamed a government decision to stop importing wheat for the hikes; several subsidies, the government announced, are scrapped as part of its 2018 budget. Bread forms a crucial part of people’s diet in the North African country.
Protests spread across the country with local footage showing people chanting against the price changes and clashing with security forces. On Sunday, one student died at a demonstration. Authorities, aiming to bring the situation under control, arrested a prominent opposition leader and reportedly blocked the sale of six newspapers.
One baker in the capital Khartoum told AFP that he would stop making bread when his flour reserves finished. “While the price of flour has jumped by about 270%, the price of bread has only doubled. It's unfair,” he said. One Khartoum resident explained what the price hikes meant for him. "Given the new price, I will have to spend 1,200 [Sudanese] pounds to buy bread every month when my salary is only 3,050 pounds… This is unacceptable."
Sudan has experienced high levels of inflation, estimated to be around 37%, and remains highly indebted. This month the government devalued the Sudanese pound to 18 per US dollar; however, black market prices were calculated at around 29 pounds to the dollar last week. Nevertheless, a US decision earlier this year to lift sanctions has brought some hope for more investment.
Sudan experienced an economic shock when the Republic of South Sudan gained independence in 2011 after decades of conflict and diplomacy - most of the country’s oil reserves are located in the south. What is more, ongoing conflict in South Sudan has caused several hundred thousand people to seek shelter in the north. Conflict in the western region of Darfur has subsided, but the UN’s peacekeeping chief still described the humanitarian situation as an “emergency”, adding that a negotiated political settlement remained “elusive”. The International Criminal Court in 2010 indicted Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, on the crime of genocide in connection with the conflict there.
The case of Sudan highlights just how sensitive it is to cut subsidies for commonly used goods, a measure often mandated by international financial institutions like the IMF. The Middle East and North Africa has a long history of food riots. ‘Bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity’ was one of the key rallying cries during the Arab Spring. In neighbouring Egypt, two-day mass protests in 1977, also known as the “bread intifada”, led to a reinstatement of food subsidies under late President Anwar Sadat.
For now, the Sudanese government seems intent on crushing the protests.
Editor-in-Chief, The World Weekly
Editor-in-Chief / Middle East Editor: Manuel Langendorf firstname.lastname@example.org Associate Editor: Sam Courtney-Guy email@example.com Staff writer: Alexander Izza firstname.lastname@example.org Staff writer: Anna Grace email@example.com Managing Director: Rory O’grady firstname.lastname@example.org