Dispatch

The view from the ground.

How a Garbage Dump Foretells Tunisia’s Future

President Kais Saied promised to confront corruption and defend poor Tunisians. Now, his government is abandoning and brutalizing them.

By , a freelance journalist based in Tunisia.
Tunisians shout slogans as they protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied in Tunis, Tunisia, on Dec. 17, 2021.
Tunisians shout slogans as they protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied in Tunis, Tunisia, on Dec. 17, 2021.
Tunisians shout slogans as they protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied in Tunis, Tunisia, on Dec. 17, 2021. FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images

TUNIS, Tunisia—Tunisia is entering the new year riven by a fresh identity crisis as it reels from the seismic events of last July, when its president, Kais Saied, dramatically intervened by disrupting the parliamentary process and assuming most of the functions of the state for himself.

It was no surprise that Tunisians took to the streets across the country to celebrate when Saied shuttered a parliament whose theatrics had rendered it a national embarrassment. Even before the October 2019 elections that splintered the body, the parliament had long lost whatever love it may once have enjoyed from a population sinking further into poverty and threatened by the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The record of the parliament is hardly inspiring. Over its final months, abuse, and even assault, among its members had become relatively commonplace. Within its chamber, a vicious war of attrition was waged between supporters of the pre-revolutionary regime and anyone they considered an Islamist, including the country’s largest party, Ennahdha.

TUNIS, Tunisia—Tunisia is entering the new year riven by a fresh identity crisis as it reels from the seismic events of last July, when its president, Kais Saied, dramatically intervened by disrupting the parliamentary process and assuming most of the functions of the state for himself.

It was no surprise that Tunisians took to the streets across the country to celebrate when Saied shuttered a parliament whose theatrics had rendered it a national embarrassment. Even before the October 2019 elections that splintered the body, the parliament had long lost whatever love it may once have enjoyed from a population sinking further into poverty and threatened by the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The record of the parliament is hardly inspiring. Over its final months, abuse, and even assault, among its members had become relatively commonplace. Within its chamber, a vicious war of attrition was waged between supporters of the pre-revolutionary regime and anyone they considered an Islamist, including the country’s largest party, Ennahdha.

One member sheltered from sexual harassment charges behind his parliamentary immunity, another avoided assault charges, and others relied on immunity to avoid charges of corruption and tax avoidance. All the while, on the streets outside and at the doors of the parliament itself, protesters called for jobs, development, and an end to the police brutality that had become a fact of life for many. 


More than five months later, the euphoria of July appears a fading memory. Tunisia’s polls, though notoriously shaky, show declining support for the president, though he remains the most popular political figure in the country. Still, the overwhelming political capital Saied earned with his July 25 dismissal of the prime minister, suspension of parliament, and the lifting of its members’ criminal immunity looks to have been sunk wholesale into his personal vision for a new democracy, where power—and sovereignty—flows from the bottom up.

“It’s true he’s an idealist,” Youssef Cherif, a political analyst and head of Columbia University’s Global Center in Tunis, said of Saied, affectionately dubbed “Robocop” for his peculiar manner and style of speech. “He believes he has political solutions that will benefit the greater populace. He also believes they can see and understand that.”

How long Saied’s vision may take to enact is uncertain. What’s clear is that he has set aside one year to undertake the constitutional amendments he needs to underpin the changes he wants. His timings are very specific. The proposed constitutional changes will be subject to a referendum, slated for the one-year anniversary of his power grab. A few months later, on Dec. 17, the anniversary of the self-immolation of the Sidi Bouzid trader Mohammed Bouazizi 12 years earlier, Tunisians will go to the polls to cast their votes for a reformed legislature. In the interim, Saied, along with his appointed government, will continue to rule the country by decree.

There’s a great emphasis on public consultation throughout this process. However, few doubt that the outcome will differ substantially from Saied’s vision for a so-called bottom-up democracy, first voiced in 2011. Essentially, power will be vested in a series of local councils. These will then appoint regional bodies that, in turn, will forward members to the national body. 

It’s an ambitious plan and one whose success or failure remains to be seen. What’s clear, however, is that such a dramatic reimagining of the constitution is going to take years to enact and, in the meantime, Tunisia’s fundamental problems aren’t going anywhere. Chief among these is the economy. Public debt now accounts for more than 80 percent of GDP. Inflation remains high while the national currency, the dinar, sinks. Unemployment, one of the chief drivers of the revolution 11 years ago, has only worsened. 

The figures on their own are stark enough. Before the revolution, joblessness stood at 13 percent. Now it is more than 18 percent. What these numbers don’t capture is the sheer desperation and hopelessness that endemic joblessness has bred throughout the country. 

Middle-aged men beg or watch hungrily from empty tables outside deserted cafes as they wonder where their family’s next meal might be coming from.

Unemployment takes many forms in Tunisia. In the side streets of the cities and within their marginalized suburbs, men sort through the cold, wet household waste that lies in piles, searching for the discarded plastic bottles they can force into sacks and sell for recycling. One sack will net a bottle collector, or barbechas, anywhere between 2 or 3 dinars (between $0.70 and $1.05). 

On a good day, a barbechas will sell around five sacks. International Alert estimates that there are around 8,000 barbechas operating in Tunisia today. Elsewhere, on the outskirts of the cities, middle-aged men beg for the 500 millimes (around 20 cents) they need for that day’s bread or watch hungrily from empty tables outside deserted cafes as they wonder where their family’s next meal might be coming from. 

Amid the poverty is an endless cycle of police brutality—another unresolved hangover from a revolution it helped spark—that plagues the country’s poorest neighborhoods and that continues unchecked, irrespective of the political vision of the current tenant of the Carthage Palace outside Tunis. 


Most recently, the full force of the Tunisian security services was unleashed on the marginalized communities around a landfill site in Agareb, near the industrial city of Sfax. It was precisely the sort of demographic the president had called on and championed during his campaign.

There’s nothing particularly special about Agareb. What distinguishes it from its fellow dumps throughout Tunisia is the stench that hangs in the air, the skin lesions, respiratory ailments, and cancers the residents say have been their reality for over a decade—all from the landfill site that opened in 2008 and was supposed to close five years later, according to residents. 

Pressure from the townspeople at Agareb was sustained enough to attract the interest of Saied, then a law professor, who visited the site before the 2019 elections were even a consideration. It wasn’t an exceptional move, his supporters said. Saied had been visiting similarly marginalized areas for years. 

According to protesters, Saied had listened and urged them to demonstrate. In November 2021, they did just that, insisting that the court order they’d won two years previously be enforced and the dump closed. 

Wrongfooted, the agriculture ministry asked for more time to resolve a problem that had been overlooked for more than a decade. Ultimately, as waste piled up throughout nearby Sfax and its environs, Saied ordered the police deployed against the protesters and the landfill reopened. 

The scenes that followed veered closer to a war movie than an environmental protest. In Agareb, the National Guard post was torched. Around the landfill, under clouds of tear gas, running battles raged between protesters and Tunisia’s heavily armed and well-equipped police. A young activist, Abdelrazek Lachhab, was killed. Demonstrators claimed that he succumbed to tear gas inhalation; the police said he died after a fall at home, several miles away. 

Around Agareb, at the makeshift checkpoints and lines of burning tires that demonstrators used to control access to their town, the anger was palpable. The president was a dictator, they said, and the parties that had sat on their hands as the locals suffered were branded corrupt. 

It is becoming clear that Saied has no more answers to the fundamental economic challenges facing Tunisia than any of his predecessors.

It’s a story that finds echoes across Tunisia. In Borj Chakir, near the capital of Tunis, the massive landfill there continues to blight residents’ lives, despite it first being slated for closure in 2013. For years promises have been broken in favor of more urgent, simpler matters and so that the political jeopardy of exploring new sites in a volatile landscape can be avoided. 

In the waste industry, as elsewhere, graft runs rampant. Corruption, once the preserve of the powerful circle surrounding the pre-revolutionary autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, has extended its tentacles to almost every aspect of the state. In the years since the revolution, the size of the civil service, the principal body on which that graft feeds, has doubled as successive governments have offered jobs in return for social calm. 

After years of growth, Tunisia’s public sector salary bill stands at around 17.6 percent of GDP, one of the highest in the world, with every attempt to rein it in drawing the fierce resistance of the country’s powerful general trade union, the UGTT, which, despite early qualified support for Saied, has become increasingly adversarial as its exclusion from the inner discussions on Tunisia’s future looks to have become permanent.

Increasingly, it is becoming clear that Saied has no more answers to the fundamental economic challenges facing Tunisia than any of his predecessors. In December, Reuters published the country’s draft budget proposals, which included a planned increase in fuel and electricity prices, a freeze in public sector pay, and the imposition of new taxes ahead of a deal with the International Monetary Fund. As with any austerity measures, the cuts will cause the most pain in those communities where people have the least.

Saied’s opponents often accuse him of having accrued too much power. It isn’t true. Power needs deeper pockets and more political momentum than Saied has available to him. Instead, he has the expectations of a hungry population and the accumulated sins of more than 10 years of political chaos—years that have seen the economy stutter, corruption metastasize, and the police unionize behind a shield of immunity. 

These issues aren’t new. Over the years, they’ve grown and have assumed a momentum of their own. In 2022, more than five months into Saied’s power grab, the accumulated grievances of 11 years of neglect now threatens his hopes that constitutional reform may deliver a new Tunisia. 

At Agareb, the frustrations of years of politicians’ excuses found expression in protest, tear gas, and baton charges. Saied campaigned by appealing directly to the marginalized, the dispossessed, and those who felt failed by party politics. Their needs are urgent, pressing, and are unlikely to go away. 

Debates over the constitutional distribution and exercise of power in any democracy are of profound importance. However, conversations over the distribution of jobs and food are more pressing.

Simon Speakman Cordall is a freelance journalist based in Tunisia. Twitter: @IgnitionUK

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