«The government has nothing to hide concerning the subject of energy,”1 the Tunisian Minister of Energy, Industry, and Mines asserted before the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP) on Tuesday. Addressing the parliamentary Commission of Industry, Energy, Natural Resources, Infrastructure and Environment and the Commission of Administrative Reform, Good Governance, and the Fight Against Corruption and Monitoring of Public Finance Management, Zakaria Hamad presented charts, tables, and maps detailing the country’s oil resources. “Tunisia is not an oil- and petroleum-rich country,” he emphasized, pointing out that of the 700 exploration wells foraged until 2015, 38 have been deemed suitable for exploitation.
Much as the management of resources has been a recurring theme over the past several years and the demand for transparency and good governance of the country’s natural wealth (commodities such as phosphate, oil, sea salt) encoded (via Article 13) in the constitution, Hamad’s intervention in parliament was specifically prompted by a campaign launched on Facebook that has burgeoned into an on-the-ground movement. “Winou el pétrole?”—Where is our oil? began to draw media attention when citizens hit the street brandishing the slogan on signs, banners, and empty gasoline containers; the movement has gained considerable visibility since last week when demonstrations in the capital and the south of the country turned into violent confrontations between protesters and security forces.
Politics dominate discussions concerning natural resource management
Doubts regarding the movement’s beginning as a spontaneous social media campaign and uncertainty about the authenticity of its objectives have stirred controversy in the media and warranted the response of political figures and party leaders. Management of the country’s natural resources was a point of contention between Ennhadha party leader Rached Ghannouchi and CPR leader and former president Moncef Marzouki in 2013, a fact which explains why “Ennahdha and CPR were obviously the first to be accused since the majority of the campaign’s initiators are supporters of these parties.”2 Former Minister of Industry and Prime Minister of Tunisia’s technocratic interim government Mehdi Jomaa is another name that has frequently come up in discussions concerning the politicization of the movement in question. Jomaa is perceived to have been complicit -even passively- in the “banana republic” management of the country’s natural resources for having precipitated the renewal of exploitation contracts with foreign oil companies without consulting parliament.
“Mehdi Jomaa and Tunisia’s Plundered Wealth” from Winou el pétrole? official Facebook page, 11 June 2015.
Demonstrations in the capital
The first demonstration took place on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis on Saturday, May 30; news articles following the event evoked the names of politicians and political parties who had taken part in (or instrumentalized for electoral gains) previous debates on the country’s natural resources, presuming that the would-be ‘social movement’ was in fact a political ploy. The following Saturday, a second protest in the capital marked a turning point in the course of the movement. «Everything in the repression of this demonstration…recalls the methods of the former political police…” observed journalist Seif Soudani afterwards. Having refused to comply with authorities to ask demonstrators to vacate the space, protest leaders were arrested, while others present, including journalists covering the event, were pursued by police. In the afternoon, the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) posted a statement on Facebook naming six journalists who had been assaulted by security forces and announcing that the Union had contacted the Ministry of the Interior to request the opening of an investigation. In response, Ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Laroui announced that an investigation had indeed been opened and noted that “certain journalists were in the midst of protesters, which is against instructions for media coverage in such circumstances.”
Demonstrations in the south
In the governorate of Kébili, protests under the same slogan escalated into several days of confrontations between demonstrators and security forces. Nawaat spoke with locals in Douz who had been involved or impacted by the violence which began last Tuesday. According to residents, protesters had set out to assemble in front of the “independent oil and gas company” Perenco, demanding that contributions be made to development projects in the region. Skirmishes occurred between marchers and security forces sent to block the road, at which point protesters addressed local authorities. When the latter refused to engage in a dialogue and threatened to send security reinforcements, angry protesters threw stones into windows of the municipal building and security responded by launching tear gas at demonstrators.
The conflict continued through Wednesday and escalated Thursday night, one resident told Nawaat, when security forces stormed homes in order to apprehend stone-throwers. Tear gas was thrown into yards and several residents were verbally and physically assaulted. The following morning, a security agent allegedly slapped a protester in a cafe in the center of town, and the army threw tear gas into a group of people leaving the mosque after Friday prayers. The same day, demonstrators set fire to a security vehicle and headed for the National Guard station which agents were ordered to evacuate; weapons left behind in the hasty retreat were removed by the replacement army sent in.
Essid and Hamad address the question before parliament
One week ago, current Prime Minister Habib Essid stood before parliament and addressed the question of oil. “Winou el pétrole?” Essid asked rhetorically, before emphasizing the necessity of transparency in the sector and acknowledging citizens’ right to information concerning the country’s oil resources. The Prime Minister further indicated that detailed reports had been prepared by the Court of Accounts and the General Finance Inspector (Contrôle Général des Finances) of which the content was to be presented by the Minister of Industry. “There is no problem with regard to this issue,” Essid concluded. Indeed, following the second week of demonstrations in the capital and escalation of confrontations in the south, Hamad appeared before ARP deputies to relay the information promised, though not without a preface alluding to the movement’s questionable motives and reference to a certain “exaggeration in the campaign…orchestrated, I hope, for the right reasons.”