Riots hint at potential chaos in Tunisia's future


RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Five days of riots last week in a town in Tunisia's impoverished interior wounded hundreds of people and deepened the rift between the two most powerful forces in this North African country: the moderate Islamist ruling party and the main labor union.

With the two at loggerheads, the threat of a nationwide general strike next week could plunge the economically struggling country back into chaos, endangering its government and its transition to democracy nearly two years after Tunisians ousted a dictator and kicked off the Arab Spring revolutions.

Tunisians' dissatisfaction with their post-revolution government has yet to reach the dramatic levels in Egypt, where hundreds of thousands are protesting President Mohammed Morsi's recent decision to vastly expand his powers.

But the latest tensions in Tunisia are reminiscent of the demonstrations that began there in December 2010, when a poor young fruit seller in the interior town of Sidi Bouzid set himself on fire. Those protests led, the following month, to the end of the 23-year-old dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Today's economic conditions and political struggles in Tunisia suggest a crisis that "is going to get worse before it gets better," said William Lawrence, the North Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group.

In many ways, the onus is on the ruling Islamist Ennahda party to curb the disappointments of the citizens who elected it. Fourteen months after their first free multi-party election, Tunisians still suffer from the same high unemployment and police arrogance that angered them pre-revolution, and many wonder what their vote accomplished.

The anger is especially acute in the country's interior, where residents in towns such as Siliana and Sidi Bouzid see relatively few benefits compared to coastal areas that prosper due to ports and tourist beaches. Last week's unrest was centered in Siliana, and it ended only when soldiers arrived and the local governor was suspended.

"I expect that what happened in Siliana is going to happen in many other places in the future if this government doesn't try to solve its problems," said Messaoudi Romdhani, a member of the labor union that first called the strike on Nov. 27 in Siliana. "There is a total absence of communication between this government and civil society."

After contracting in 2011, Tunisia's economy has begun growing again. But the anemic 2.7 percent rate in 2012 will do little address the 17.6 percent unemployment in this nation of 10 million. And places such as Siliana and Sidi Bouzid, which suffered its own riots six weeks ago, are likely to see the least improvement.

As a result, the Ennahda party faces growing accusations of economic incompetence. Many are now calling for the formation of a new government of technocrats to pull the country out of its economic hole, which has been exacerbated by the financial crisis in Europe, Tunisia's main trading partner.

Even Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, a member of a secular party allied with Ennahda, has called for a new government with more economic experience. "Tunisia today is at a crossroads — the road to decline or that of salvation," he warned in a radio address Friday.

Lawrence, the North Africa analyst, said Ennahda has not proven "economically very adept."

"There has been some creation of public jobs, public works, and some improvements in governance, and some stipends and other social aid. But nothing on the scale of the problem nationwide," Lawrence said.

The fury over the economic problems has been compounded by allegations of continued official arrogance and police brutality — affronts to Tunisian pride.

For instance, in Siliana province, home to some 250,000 people, investment and employment dropped 40 and 60 percent respectively in 2012, according to government statistics. But Siliana's local governor, a member of Ennahda, refused to meet with the unions to discuss the problem, leading to calls for a general strike.

The response was swift and harsh. Police attacked the demonstrators, while Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali described the entire affair as a plot by the opposition and remnants of the old regime, enraging the protesters further.

The crowds grew to more than 10,000 people, many of whom engaged in running street battles with police before the army finally arrived. Five days and more than 300 injured later — police and protesters alike — the governor was suspended and the strike was called off.

Lawrence said many of the protesters had probably voted for Ennahda but now consider it responsible for Siliana's problems and the police actions.

"They want dignified jobs, and they want to be able to protest in a dignified way without getting shot in the eye with birdshot, which is why they were lining up with Molotov cocktails for the next round," he said. For many, the police brutality was reminiscent of the days of Ben Ali.

Ennahda is feeling pressure from more than just unions.

It has to deal with resurgent hardline Islamists, known as Salafis, who have staged protests of their own and even attacked the U.S. embassy in September. Many Tunisians have linked the hardliners' rising popularity to the country's dismal economic prospects.

The conflict with the union also is part of a widening rift between Ennahda and secular parties in its ruling coalition, tensions that could threaten the year-old government.

"We could be on the verge of, if not a collapse of the government, then a serious challenge to Ennahda's leadership," Lawrence said.

By Monday, the people of Siliana were cleaning up calm but devastated streets. But on Tuesday in the capital Tunis, supporters of Ennahda attacked members of the country's main labor union, the General Union of Tunisian Workers, in apparent retaliation for their support of the Siliana strike.

The head of the union then warned that the "doors of confrontation were open" and announced a nationwide strike for Dec. 13. The last time the union held general strikes in 1984 and 1978, the country was convulsed by riots.