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Middle East

Tunisia's Arab Spring wilts in political limbo

Tunisia is the cradle of the Arab Spring, but three years after the uprising began, the political transformation process has come to a standstill - with serious consequences for the people and the economy.

The Arab Spring revolts across the Middle East began in a small town in Tunisia with the desperation of a street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi. The authorities in his town of Sidi Bouzid had repeatedly closed his vegetable stand and confiscated his produce. When he complained, he was taken to the police station and beaten.

Bouazizi turned to a radical form of protest. Three years ago, on December 17, 2010, he set himself on fire. His protest unleashed a conflagration. People all over the country took to the streets to protest against the economic hardships they had to endure and to demand more freedom. It was the beginning of the end for Tunisia's dictator, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

No future in the provinces

Badreddine Hamlaoui lives in Siliana, a small city of 25,000 inhabitants, north of Sidi Bouzid. For Hamlaoui, not much has changed since Bouazizi's self-immolation. Tunisia's provinces, in general, are still regions without jobs and opportunities. "Unemployment, poverty, misery: we live under desperate condition," says the 19-year-old. "I ask myself why Siliana is neglected and cut off from development."

Tunisia has seen frequent protests and strikes against the government.

Tunisia has seen frequent protests and strikes against the government.

The unemployment rate in Tunisia is around 16 percent, but in the provinces - in towns like Siliana and Sidi Bouzid - it is as much as 29 percent. Among young people, in some places, one-in-two are without a job. "The provinces are ignored and marginalized," says Mohammed Miraoui, chairman of the regional labor union, Gafsa, in the south of the country. "The policies of the government are to blame," he says.

Investor exodus

The economic situation in coastal regions is also difficult. Tourism, once a major source of income and foreign currency, never rebounded after the revolution. And foreign investors are skeptical about the country's development prospects and have pulled out.

Until last July, Mohammad abd el Momen worked in a factory in Bizerte, north of the capital, Tunis. Momen made heavy duty boots for construction workers. But then his Italian employers closed the factory and 4,500 people lost their jobs. "We started the revolution, but then the politicians got the jobs and we were left with the tragedy," laments Momen. He says he doesn't have enough money to buy milk for his children.

Police investigate a crime scene on one of Tunisia's once idyllic Mediterranean beaches

Police investigate a crime scene on one of Tunisia's once idyllic Mediterranean beaches.

Political stagnation

What Tunisia needs is a functioning government. "The transformation has completely stalled," notes Joachim Paul from the German Heinrich Böll Foundation in Tunis. "We are witnessing a phase of transition and insecurity," he says, and that's why there are no economic reforms or investment.

The latest episode in the political crisis began with the assassination of leftist opposition figure Mohammed Brahmi at the end of July. The murder was blamed on radical Salafists, but the secular opposition said the government of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party was also to blame.

After the attack, tens of thousands of Tunisians repeatedly marched through the streets to protest against the democratically elected Ennahda government. To prevent an escalation, Ennahda agreed to step down and participate in a "national dialogue." The result of those consultations led to plans for a new constitution, a reform of voting rights and fresh elections.

However, the country is still waiting for the implementation of these plans. Until last week, the parties were unable to agree on a new prime minister. According to Joachim Paul, the government and opposition were afraid of being excluded from power if a compromise was reached, but at the same time, he thinks that "both sides ultimately wanted to keep the country and society from sliding further into chaos or violence."

That is also what the head of Ennahda, Rached Ghannouchi, has declared: "We have a conflict, but we are fighting with words, the courts and the law - not with bullets."

Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahda Party

"We have a conflict - but no bullets," says Rached Ghannouchi, of Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda Party.

A life in dignity

But then, in early December, the UGTT trade union, one of the mediators in the "national dialogue," issued an ultimatum to the government and opposition demanding agreement on an interim premier within 10 days; otherwise the talks would be broken off.

Tunisia's political parties finally agreed last Saturday (14.12.2013) to choose Industry Minister Mehdi Jomaa to head a government of independent figures tasked with organizing elections in 2014.

The months of wrangling have been accompanied by repeated strikes and protests. Badreddine Hamlaoui, the young man from Siliana, also attended the demonstrations, well aware of how quickly the situation can escalate in Tunisia. A year ago, for the last anniversary, he also took to the streets to protest. The police fired into the crowds and Hamlaoui lost an eye. But that hasn't intimidated him: "We just want to live a life in dignity," he says.

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