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The Riots of 1984 and Their Aftermath

The fact that limited government reforms had not sufficiently ameliorated the causes of dissent was emphasized in January 1984 by rioting throughout the country that was triggered by an increase in the price of bread and other staples. One of the principal measures belatedly adopted by the government to bring an alarming balance of payments drain under control was to restrict imports and reduce subsidies on sales of basic food products, notably cereals. Bread prices were to double, while semolina (used in making couscous) and pasta were to go up by nearly as much. Although the government had made known its intentions three months in advance and had pledged itself to earmark compensatory payment to wage earners, it neglected to take account of the harsh impact on the unemployed and rural poor subsisting on the very foods most affected by the price increases.

Even before the price rises were announced officially on January 1, 1984, protest demonstrations had begun. In the south, the region least advanced economically, mobs attacked shops, vehicles, and public buildings. In similar outbreaks at Gafsa in the west and Gabs, the main industrial center of the south, protestors battled police with stones. Symbols of authority and wealth were targets of arson and looting. A state of emergency was declared on January 3, and army units used automatic weapons against crowds barricaded in the streets of Tunis when it became evident that the demoralized police were incapable of controlling the situation. Order was not restored until January 6, when Bourguiba appeared on radio and television to announce that in the face of the unrest the price rises would be rescinded and that he was directing the cabinet to submit a new budget to him that would avoid excessive price increases for food staples.

The January 1984 rioting, the most extensive in Tunisian history, clearly indicated that the government's political reforms had not removed the causes of popular discontent. The disturbances, which started in the south, spread nationwide and reportedly involved half a million Tunisians, 10 times the number in the 1978 violence. As in 1978, the police were overwhelmed by the protesters, and the army had to be called in to help restore order. The riots had heavy political overtones. Demonstrators, mostly young unemployed males, shouted slogans condemning Bourguiba, his wife Wassila, Mzali, and other PSD leaders and stoned the president's car in his hometown, Monastir. Although some observers suspected at the time that the riots were planned by regime opponents, later analyses indicated that they broke out spontaneously at the time of the price increases in bread and other staples. After the disturbances began, however, it appeared that government opponents, especially Islamists, were active in organizing antigovernment demonstrations.

It was officially reported that 89 Tunisians had died in the disturbances, and at least 938 others had been injured (including 348 members of the security forces). Over 1,000 others were arrested, some of whom were detained for as long as six months before being brought to trial. Most of the demonstrators were unemployed youths, joined by students and Islamists. In its analysis of the cause of the riots, the Tunisian League of Human Rights alluded to the serious disparities among classes and regions, generating a gap between two worlds - one the idle and unemployed citizens without prospects and the other a class of entrepreneurs engaged in parasitic and speculative activity. The league's report noted that the promise of tangible reform of the political system had not been kept, producing a political vacuum in which the citizens were not involved in decisions affecting their daily lives. It forthrightly assailed the government's "determination to keep the legal opposition on the sideline of debates and decisions on major national issues and the continuance of political trials, suspensions of newspapers, and the monopoly of audiovisual media."

Shortly after calm was restored, the PSD's internal disputes were also highlighted when the government's strongest reactions against the violence were reserved for one of Prime Minister Mzali's political rivals, Minister of Interior Driss Guiga. The minister and his director of the Sret Nationale were dismissed from their positions. A report by an official commission of inquiry later declared that Guiga had neglected his legal and security obligations, had been slow in summoning the forces at his command against the rioters, and had even tried to exploit the disturbances to further his own ambitions. Guiga had left the country after his dismissal, saying that he had been picked as a scapegoat; he called the commission report "unproven slander." He was subsequently tried in absentia in June 1984, convicted of treason and corruption, and sentenced to a jail term. After Mzali and his appointees came to dominate the ministry, some observers criticized the prime minister for being more interested in finding scapegoats and consolidating his political position within the PSD than in addressing the root causes of the violence.

The 1984 riots and their aftermath starkly revealed some of the regime's vulnerabilities. That the disturbances were completely unforseen showed the ineffectiveness of the PSD's local organization as a source of domestic intelligence. After the violence broke out, local PSD officials appeared to be unable or unwilling to stop the protesters or moderate their actions. After the riots, some suspected that the government would toughen its stand against domestic opposition and return to the domestic security attitudes and policies of the 1970s. In January 1984 Mzali's appointment of Brigadier General Zine el Abidine Ben Ali [late President], who had a reputation as a hardliner on security issues, as the director of national security within the Ministry of Interior appeared to confirm this view. Mzali, however, continued to indicate that government attempts to integrate the opposition (including, perhaps, the MTI) into the political system would continue. The release from prison in August 1984 of the last of the Islamist leaders, jailed three years earlier, was the most tangible evidence that Mzali was still seeking to reshape the government's domestic security policies.

Despite the prime minister's assurances, government policy in 1984-85 had in many ways become more repressive. The government was accused of supporting divisive tendencies within the labor movement. Opposition parties that had been given legal sanction complained of renewed suppression (including attacks on members by groups of PSD loyalists), destruction of offices, unjustified arrests by police, and general harassment. Censorship of the information media, relaxed in 1980, again became increasingly prevalent and was directed against opposition publications. The situation led the recognized opposition parties to boycott the 1985 local elections and Ahmed Mestiri of the Social Democratic Movement to conclude that "those responsible within the [Destourian Socialist] party are not yet ready for opposition."

In late 1985, after nearly six years of erratic moves to liberalize the political system, the party's and the regime's security did not appear to have been significantly improved. There was no sign that its most serious opponents-Islamists, unionists, the urban unemployed, southerners, and students-had moderated their attitudes toward the regime. There was cynicism in some quarters that the liberalization effort was simply a method for Mzali to enhance his status and eliminate potential rivals as he positioned himself to take power after Bourguiba's passing.

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Page last modified: 05-08-2011 20:03:14 ZULU