Tunisians hungry for a break with the past

More self-immolations have been performed, while others remain hopeful of real change, one year after the revolution.

    Tunisians are waiting for their new government to impose real change on the ground [Ali Garboussi/Al Jazeera]

    Tunisia is a country at a crossroads, a year after a popular uprising forced the country's despised leader from power.

    Having pulled through a year of remarkable political upheaval, many questions still hang over the country's future. Strikes and sit-ins have become an almost daily occurrence, as people who lived under the cloak of authoritarianism now have freedom of speech - but not the social and economic rights they hoped would follow their revolution.

    On January 14, 2011, the man who had used fear to keep his people subjugated for three decades fled the country with surprising haste, terrified by the angry hordes taking to the streets, voiceless no more.

    Ousting Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was only the first step for many of the original protesters, many of whom have continued to call for their original demands of economic opportunity and dignity to be respected, now that the country has held a successful election.

    The political transformation that marked 2011 crystallised with an election in October. The country now has a constituent assembly, a body that is to spend a year crafting the country's new political system.

    The moderate Islamist Ennahdha party, which had been outlawed under the previous regime, outperformed the other parties, winning over an electorate hungry for an unequivocal break with the past.

    After a series of controversial interim governments, Tunisia has a new government, appointed by the assembly in December.

    The Congress for the Republic Party's (CPR by its French acronym) Moncef Marzouki, an activist and strident critic of Ben Ali, became president a month ago, while Ennahdha's Hamadi Jebali, an engineer and former journalist, was appointed prime minister.

    "We are waiting," said Othman Chwaya, a leader of the Union of Unemployed Graduates in Gafsa, a southern Tunisian mining region - where anger at the national government has been brewing for years.

    "There's no more unrest, here in Gafsa everyone is awaiting the decision from the government," he said, days after protests against the Yazaki Group had nearly led to the Japanese company shutting down one of its local phosphate mining operations.

    Waiting on change

    Gafsa, which pre-empted the uprising with protests back in 2008, is one of the regions in Tunisia aching with social strife that the government will need to pay urgent attention to if it is to avoid a repeat of the uprising a year ago.

    There is cautious optimism that things might finally be different, Chwaya says, but that could fade fast if the people of Gafsa feel the new government is ignoring their pleas.

    "If they don't deliver, we will have another revolution," Chwaya said.

    On January 5, following a visit by members of the new government, a 48-year-old man set himself on fire in Gafsa, an act of desperation echoing the young street vendor who triggered the uprising more than a year ago. There have been at least three more self-immolations in the past two weeks.

    As the constituent assembly spends 2012 writing the country's new constitution, Amnesty International, the UK-based human rights NGO, reminded the authorities to enshrine fundamental rights in the document, including economic and social rights to be included, along with civil and political rights.

    "The [previous] authorities celebrated Tunisia as an 'economic miracle', even as many Tunisians had their most basic economic, social and cultural rights flouted," AI said in a statement on Friday.

    The government has called on Tunisians to give it time to bring about the economic changes they are so desperate to see.

    Samir Dillou, a spokesperson for the government, said in a press conference a week ago that the recent strikes have caused significant losses.

    "Over 513 strikes have been held since the revolution started. Only 460 were legal, the rest were random," he said, according to the Tunisian Press Agency.

    Several companies have closed as a result of the strikes, he added, calling for an end to random strikes.

    Economic decline

    The economic statistics reveal that life can hardly have improved for many Tunisians: the cost of living rose by 4.2 per cent between December 2010 and December 2011.

    According to the national statistics office, exports rose by 6.7 per cent compared with 2010, although phosphate exports, hit by strikes, plunged by 39.7 per cent.

    And the tourism sector, a key employer, saw a dramatic 31 per cent decline in 2011.

    In a positive sign for those advocating a move away from the neo-liberalism that characterised the Ben Ali era, the constituent assembly have appointed Hocine Dimassi to the position of finance minister. Dimassi was formerly an independent left-wing economist who had tried to warn Ben Ali's government that popular anger over inequality had reached boiling point.

    Gafsa, a region in Tunisia, is 'aching with social strife' [Ali Garboussi/Al Jazeera]

    Dimassi is familiar with the social and economic issues in areas such as Kasserine, and the failed government policies behind them.

    "Since the 1990s, the argument has been that the government should no longer invest in productive sectors such as industry or tourism," he told Al Jazeera in early 2011, arguing that it was time for the state to actively invest in developing these areas.

    Indeed, Jebali's government has already made a series of announcements, promising urgent attention would be given to development in marginalised regions.

    "It is time to overcome the gaps between regions," the prime minister said on Sunday in Kasserine, as reported by the Tunisian Press Agency. He further pledged the creation of several industrial zones, the building of more roads, a decent hospital and a university dormitory in the region.

    A full 24 per cent of GDP for 2012 is to be spent on such public works projects in underdeveloped parts of the country, according the budget announced in December.

    In addition to the much-needed infrastructure, there are also signs that at least some members of the private sector are pushing for a culture change, after years of corruption and an abusive approach to business that had become so rife under the influence of the former presidential family.

    Improving the private sector

    The Tunisian Confederation of Citizen Enterprises, which goes by the abbreviated acronym of Conect, was founded in August 2011 by leading members of Tunisia's business community.

    Read more from Yasmine Ryan:

    One year on, Sidi Bouzid waits for change
    Tunisia: The uprising that started it all

    Monia Essaidi, spokesperson and a founding member of Conect, says the organisation was born out of the recognition that businesses should play a more constructive role in Tunisian society.

    "The revolution started because of the unequal distribution of wealth. Businesses have a fundamental role to play in creating a more equitable distribution of wealth," Essaidi said.

    The values that the organisation seeks to encourage within the business community include good governance, transparency, sustainable development and dialogue with workers.

    The current climate of standoffs between employers and employees is harmful for all Tunisians, she says.

    "It is time to calm down and to get to work, to ensure durable jobs and durable businesses, and to deal with the issues of unemployment and growth, which are becoming more and more worrying," she says.

    As part of its mission to encourage enterprise in marginalised areas, it has opened branches in Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid and, in amid the December unrest, in Gafsa.

    Conect joined the local crisis committee that was formed to resolve the dispute, and says it played an important role in helping convince the Yazaki group not to close its Om Laarayes mine.

    "Conect Gafsa opened immediately to help create a dialogue-friendly atmosphere, and to calm tensions so that the [Yazaki] company could continue to operate in the region in favourable conditions," Essaidi explained.

    Tunisia will need to find a way to finance its public sector, and foreign investment to support the growth of private business.

    Marzouki's first foreign visit was to Libya, a country analysts say could be a co-partner in development. Libya is a vast, petroleum-rich country, in need of skilled labour, while Tunisia has a restless, underemployed but well-educated population.

    Another reason for the chaotic nature of the strikes has been tensions within the Tunisian national trade union (UGTT), whose leadership was close to Ben Ali's regime and is often seen as part of the system by grassroots activists.

    Only in December did the union rid itself of Abdessalem Jerad, an ally of the former president, paving the way for the union to win back the trust of the people it has long claimed to serve.

    Like the government, the new union leadership will have to prove itself to activists in areas such as Gafsa.

    "The UGTT hasn't helped us much in the past, but maybe this will change now that they have new leadership," Chwaya said.

    Follow Yasmine Ryan on Twitter: @YasmineRyan


    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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