In post-revolutionary Tunisia, 'it's (still) the economy, stupid.'

Violent protests in the countryside echo the economic protest that touched off the Arab Spring here as the new government struggles to improve on the jobs situation.

By , Correspondent

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    Tunisian protesters clash with riot police, in Siliana, Tunisia, Saturday. The army moved into a southwestern Tunisian town, an official and witnesses said Friday, the fourth day of protests that have injured more than 300 people.
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On Friday morning the people of Siliana carried their governor out of town in effigy – represented by a coffin marked “governor” – which they pitched down an embankment to jeers and celebration.

They were marching in their thousands under a bright blue sky, moving symbolically toward Tunis, the capital. It was a welcome change from days of stones and tear-gas as protestors had fought with police over economic malaise they blame on state neglect.

The implications of last week’s violence in Siliana, a small country town, reach the heart of Tunisia’s democratic transition. Handling a stricken economy – and the anger it breeds – has become the foremost test to date for the country’s first freely elected government, a coalition of long-time opposition parties unexpectedly lifted to power last year by the Arab Spring.

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“Remember, we made revolution for work, dignity, and freedom,” said Abderrahman El Heni, a retired school administrator who joined the march. “Now we can talk freely – but as for dignity, there are still no jobs.”

Post-revolution economic trouble has become something of an Arab Spring theme since last year, with new leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya scrambling variously to woo jittery foreign investors, secure international loans, and keep a lid on high youth unemployment.

Tunisia's economic woes

In Tunisia, creating jobs is no easy task. Tunisia’s economy has suffered a double-whammy since former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was toppled last year, with tourism and foreign investment dented both by the turmoil of revolution and crisis in eurozone countries that are Tunisia’s main trading partners.

With the downturn, the country's once steadily-growing real GDP turned negative, declining 1.8 percent last year. While growth this year is expected to pick up, government plans to spend big on job creation still depend on foreign help. Loans of $500 million each from the World Bank and African Development Bank announced last week are the latest examples.

For now, economic trouble has kept unemployment high at 17 percent, only a slight improvement from last year's 19 percent and a figure that gets higher among young people and in depressed towns such as Siliana. 

The town lies in farming country around 70 miles southwest of Tunis, where the land tilts upward toward mountains running from Morocco to Tunisia.

The relative wealth of Tunisia’s bustling coastal cities contrasts with lethargy in the interior. It was in a similar inland town, Sidi Bouzid, that protests in December 2010 over unemployment and state corruption swelled into the uprising that unseated Mr. Ben Ali a month later.

How the unrest began 

The recent trouble in Siliana erupted last Tuesday when local union leaders called a general strike while residents demonstrated to demand jobs and the removal of governor Ahmed Mahoubi, a member of the ruling Ennahda party, whom many slam as aloof and neglectful.

Rallies spiraled into street brawls between protestors and police, who fired tear gas and birdshot – canisters of lead or rubber pellets – as young men threw stones and blocked streets with burning debris.

Violence peaked on Wednesday, as Siliana’s main hospital admitted nearly two hundred injured people, most struck by birdshot, said regional hospital director Abdelhak Atyaoui. Twenty people hit by birdshot in the eyes – potentially causing blindness – were transferred to Tunis hospitals.

After that, police apparently stopped using birdshot. The tactic has angered many and prompted the UN’s top human rights official, Navi Pillay, to condemn what she called excessive use of force. Authorities say dozens of security force members have also been injured in the clashes.

On Thursday Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, from the Ennahda party, rejected calls from protestors and some left-leaning politicians to step down, accusing opposition parties of stirring up trouble in Siliana, Reuters reported.

Having swept elections last year, the moderate Islamist Ennahda party is increasingly being challenged over both its religious inclinations and managerial competence from broadly secularist opposition parties ahead of fresh elections slated for some time next year.

Political fallout

Anger and politics could ultimately intersect in towns like Siliana. While Ennahda won Siliana’s voting district in last year’s elections, at least some here now say they won’t be voting for the party again.

“We hoped they would solve our problems, but they’ve done nothing,” said Saber Amar, a young plumber who voted for Ennahda last year, cruising at the head of Friday’s protest march on a silver Yamaha scooter.

For many in Siliana, Tunisia’s government appears to be prolonging a decades-old pattern of neglect. Memories remain of protests in Siliana in 1990 over economic issues that ended with Ben Ali’s regime jailing protestors.

“My father was in jail for seven years,” said Ramy Jlasi, laid off last June from his job cleaning car parts at a Tunis plant, as he marched down the road. “He was in the same movement that I’m in now – for employment,” Mr. Jlasi says.

Today, much anger targets Mr. Mahoubi, Siliana’s regional governor. According to Najib Sebti, who heads the local chapter of the General Union of Tunisian Workers, Tunisia’s main trade union, Mahoubi has refused to discuss development with union leaders since his appointment last spring.

Local authorities could not be reached for comment. On Saturday the governor’s office, its gate festooned with barbed wire, appeared deserted and bore signs of violence including debris of stones. Tunisian Army soldiers standing guard by the door said no officials were present.

Violence scaring off investors?

Some protestors in Siliana liken the past week’s clashes to a revolution of sorts. On Friday afternoon, skirmishing broke out again by the police compound.

“Siliana is our city and we must defend it,” said Hamza, a 17 year-old student, taking a breather down a side-street with a purloined riot policeman’s shield. Like many, he says police involved in clashes were reinforcements brought from out of town.

“We don’t have employment here, but at least now I can work with this,” Hamza said, motioning with the shield as he darted back to the fray. Nearby, three young men were crouched behind a wall with Molotov cocktails they said were for use “only if the police fire birdshot again.”

An older generation, however, looks on the violence with deep concern.

“Who will ever want to invest in Siliana when they see chaos like this?” said Abdelouahad Saddik, a day laborer and father of four, watching Friday’s clashes from a rooftop. “I want peace and a job, not this.”

Fighting ceased as Tunisian Army soldiers secured government offices and police withdrew. Townspeople poured into the streets in jubilation - abruptly cut short when several dozen protestors resumed lobbing stones at the police compound.

Yesterday, as clashes continued, the government said it was transferring administration of the Siliana region to its deputy governor pending a final decision on resolving trouble there, said Tunisia’s state news agency, TAP.

For some in Siliana, even that may not inspire hope.

“Working in Tunisia is very hard,” said Radhi, an unemployed graduate. It was Friday night and security forces were patrolling outside his house in armored vehicles, firing machine-gun bursts into the air.

In the street, he had joined in throwing stones. But at home he keeps an acceptance letter from a Ukrainian university.

“Maybe I can find a job in Europe,” he says.

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