- Associated Press - Thursday, December 6, 2012

RABAT, Morocco — 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.

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