Siliana: A tale of deprivation and anger

Tunisia’s poor and unemployed cannot wait long as government struggles to deliver.

A small town in the north west of Tunisia has been under the spotlight for the past week.

Clashes between protesters and the police in the small town of Siliana galvanized the opposition and posed the biggest challenge to the Islamist-led government that came to power in December 2011, following the first democratic elections in the history of Tunisia.

Driving to Siliana from the capital, you expect to see sprawling ramshackle huts symptomatic of the disadvantaged areas of north Africa, instead you come across a breadth taking landscape: orchards, olive groves spreading across vast farming lands, mostly owned by landlords.

Here the main complaint is the sheer absence of government investments that would create job opportunities for thousands of people.

Mourad Benjeddou, 29, had huge hopes the collapse of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime in January 2011 would change everything including his own fortunes. Mourad graduated four years, thousands like him blame the government of betraying their aspirations. They took to the streets. The police intervened using tear gas canisters a new type of gunshot pellets that injured more than 200 people and dented the image of the government.

Ironically, the current prime minister Hamadi Jebali , and the minister of interior Ali Larayedh, spent long years in jails during the autocratic rule of Ben Ali, are now accused of using the types of repressive measures of which they were once victims.

But violence in Siliana highlights the deeply-rooted problems of Tunisia. Poor in natural resoucres, its main source of revenue is tourism has been badly affected by instability.

Its main trading partners in Europe are themselves reeling under deep economic pain, leaving the government which few options to maneuver its way in this critical juncture.

Unemployment stands at 19 per cent, tourism revenues fell by 33 per cent, foreign direct investments declined by 27 per cent, according to a recent report published by the IMF. This means that the government has no option but to forgo some the pledges it made during the election campaign including a promise to provide more than a half million job opportunities.

The government though has a quite different reading of what happened in Siliana, a senior government advisor told me members of the former regime, the radical left and reuniting and stirring trouble across the country to undermine and discredit Ennahdha party which emerged as the biggest party in the 23 October 2011 elections.

Although very well organised and likely to rule Tunisia for many years comes, Ennahda remain largely unexperienced and untested. Their mis-steps are magnified by their opponents. As is the case for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, governing against the backdrop of a revolution that unleashed huge expectations some of which may never be met comes at a price.

What sparked the revolution wasn’t just a desperate act of a young man who set himself on fire, or decades of oppression, but also poverty and unemployment.

The poor and the unemployed cannot wait long.

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