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Tunisians turn on their politicians as trash piles up

Tunisia's political parties have battled for months over the role of Islam in public life as public services have deteriorated. Now a solid majority of Tunisians view political parties unfavorably.

By Correspondent / October 27, 2013

Anti-government protesters shout slogans during a demonstration in Tunis Thursday.

Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters

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Sidi Hassine, Tunisia

In a ditch beside Sidi Hassine's main road, up the street from a roundabout where taxis congregate, a dead sheep lays half-submerged in still, black water. A nearby vacant lot is strewn with waste.

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“It’s not catastrophic, but it smells and brings mosquitoes,” says Wassim Dridi, a young taxi driver in this Tunis suburb, taking a break at a café opposite. “Trash pick-up was better before the revolution.”

Tunisians are making more and more such comparisons these days. Few if any may truly regret the toppling of former dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. And the country isn’t facing Egypt-scale convulsions. But for Mr. Dridi and other men who drifted through the café one recent afternoon, fraying public services have them worried that partisan squabbling is going to end up squandering the revolution's potential.

The 2011 revolution unleashed a culture war that continues, with opposition secularists trying to oust the ruling Islamist Ennahda party through street demonstrations and political maneuvering. However, most Tunisians have moved on from identity politics, with most people worried about the health of the economy. Political parties are losing support.

“I voted for Ennahda, but they lacked experience,” says Dridi. At the same time, he says “the opposition’s strikes and sit-ins haven’t allowed the government to work.”

Distracted 

Since Mr. Ben Ali was toppled two years ago, allowing open politics for the first time in decades, political parties have clashed over the role of religion in public life. Ennahda came first in constituent assembly elections and leads a coalition government with two secularist parties.

Secularists have resisted Ennahda’s attempts to outlaw insult to core tenants of Islam and to make Islam Tunisia’s state religion. Meanwhile, Ennahda has struggled to boost the economy and employment, which is sapping its public support.

Emboldened by the July overthrow of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government, Tunisia’s opposition has staged protests and largely boycotted the assembly in hopes of forcing Ennahda from power. Leaders have described the campaign as part of a regional struggle against political Islam. 

However, most Tunisians have more concrete concerns, according to a September report by the Pew Research Center.

Fixing the economy tops priorities, followed by ensuring impartial courts and keeping the peace. While 88 percent of Tunisians want Islam to inform politics, only 53 percent say it’s “very important” that Islamist parties be allowed. Parties across the spectrum are viewed unfavorably by solid majorities.

For the powerful General Union of Tunisian Workers, which is trying to help negotiate Ennahda’s withdrawal from government, tussles over religion are a distraction. The union has proposed a “roadmap” that sets tight deadlines on choosing a caretaker cabinet, finishing the constitution, and preparing for fresh elections.

“It doesn’t bother us that Ennahda is Islamist,” says Sami Tahri, the union’s deputy secretary general. “We’re against the government because it has … brought the country toward ruin.”

Aspirations brought low

For Dridi and others at the café in Sidi Hassine, the past two years have dashed hopes that soared after the revolution. Both Dridi and his friend Saber Manei have master’s degrees but ended up driving cabs, they say.

Then there are crumbling public services – a broken streetlight here, a new pile of trash there – that they blame on Sidi Hassine’s city council and, beyond that, the government.

Mayor Fraj Gribâa has problems of his own, he says. Sidi Hassine’s yearly budget of 4 million Tunisian dinars ($2.46 million) is based on population data from 2004, and is vastly inadequate today. Thanks to old laws that haven’t been reformed, he can’t allocate spending or even hire full-time staff without interior ministry approval.

“In December 2011 we requested [specialists] in electricity and engineering, and someone to oversee sanitation,” he says. “We’re still waiting.”

At the café, a young man named Younes Kouki wandered in with his five-year-old son, Roslem, greeted Dridi and the others, and settled into a chair. He lost his job as a bank security guard during the 2011 revolution.

“For now, I’m a carpenter,” he said. 

As evening drew near, Kouki took Roslem and this reporter for a walk to a nearby salt flat. Beyond a canal half-choked with trash, they ran into Ben Yousef Barguelil, who was passing on his motorcycle. Kouki had worked on Mr. Barguelil’s new house, and the two greeted one another amiably.

The men differ on politics, however. Barguelil is an Ennahda member and among the 28 percent of Tunisians who are confident in the party, according to a September report by Zogby Research Services.

“I was 17 years in prison,” Barguelil says proudly, referring to Ben Ali’s persecution of conservative Muslims.

Like many supporters of Ennahda, he worries that it is once again under ideological attack. He argues that the party has been undermined in government by what he describes as opposition obstructionism.

Barguelil drove off, and Kouki and Roslem walked on until they reached the salt flat, a good 30 minutes from the center of Sidi Hissine but the nearest open space. Hundreds of flamingos stood in the shallow water near the shore.

“When I was young, we used to come here and play football -- there, where it’s dry,” Kouki said, pointing. 

How long might it be before Sidi Hassine had parks, trees, and water of its own? He doesn't know, he said, before taking his son’s hand again and starting home.

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