Tunisia’s uprising is not over. On a regular basis, demonstrators rally in Sidi Bouzid, where the Tunisian revolution started. The protesters are frustrated with the slow pace of economic change in the country.
In Sidi Bouzid, protesters often meet to rally in front of the town hall. In December 2010, the young street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi burned himself to death at this very spot. His death sparked mass protests across Tunisia, the ouster of the country's longtime dictator President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and eventually, uprisings throughout the Arab world.
Today, the protesters at Sidi Bouzid city hall are demanding jobs, which was a key issue that sparked the original demonstrations.
"We're just struggling in the same situation," said protestor Alawi Tahrir. "I have a master's degree in English language, and I have still been unemployed for five years."
The demonstrators' chants merge with the muezzin's call to noon prayer in this hardscrabble, agricultural city. Islam has deep roots here, and it's reflected in the politics.
The Islamist Ennahda Party has benefitted from the fall of the old regime. It won the most seats in last October's election to the constituent assembly - tasked with writing the country's new constitution. Mohammed Sukry, a local Ennahda leader, said he blames the current economic instability on anti-government agitators.
"Leftists and the old ruling party instigate these demonstrations," Sukry said. "They will support any social movement against the government." He added they were just a small number of people, representing those parties that lost the elections. But they did not represent the majority of the population.
Yet economist and banker Chedly Ayari said the economic discontent is widespread and real, particularly among recent college graduates.
"Two-thirds of these strikers are young people who were promised during the campaign for the constituent assembly that they would get jobs," Ayari said. "They never got jobs."
Restructuring takes time
Tunisian unemployment is estimated to be at some 19 percent. Ennahda has only been in power since January, and its leaders say they need more time to repair the economy.
Said Ferjani is a member of the Ennahda political bureau in Tunis. The government, he said, is beset by ultra-conservative Islamists on the one side and leftist unions on the other.
"We have to restructure an economy that has failed the country for more than half a century," Ferjani said. "We cannot do it in 100 days. We need more time and we need some kind of stability. Some of the people don't want stability because they don't want the government to succeed.” He said his government is encouraging foreign investment to generate jobs and has recently accepted financial aid from the US to reduce its budget deficit.
"We have to diversify our relationships," Ferjani said. "We must strengthen our relations with the US in particular, with the EU, and the West. We are proud of this relationship with the US. We disagree on a few issues, about Israel and Palestine. We said let's agree to disagree."
Sitting at a Tunis café, Lina Ben Mhenni, strongly disagreed. She criticized Tunisia's growing alliance with the US. The activist blogger and university lecturer said the US opportunistically supports Tunisia's new government, after years of supporting the brutal dictatorship of Ben Ali.
"The US doesn't care about Tunisians, doesn't care about people or human rights," Ben Mhenni said. "They were aware of the situation in which we were living. They closed their eyes because they had economic and other interests with Ben Ali. Now they are doing the same with the Ennahda Party."
Serious challenges ahead
Ben Mhenni criticized Ennahda for trying to shift the debate away from economic questions to issues of Islamic identity. For example, the government has supported recent court decisions that jailed bloggers for posting cartoons with critical portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad.
The government has also put a TV station owner on trial for airing the animated film "Persepolis" which allegedly violated Tunisian sacred values.
"They deflect the discussion to fake debates, about identity, about religion," she said. "I don't see any willingness to change the situation or improve it. They say that we have to give them time. But they didn't even offer plans or programs."
Tunisia faces serious economic challenges in the years ahead. Protestor Alawi Tahrir said the Tunisian revolution isn't over yet.
"The same system of Ben Ali is still running in the veins of this government," he said. "We want new blood. We want a new system."
Tunisia has scheduled parliamentary and presidential elections for the spring of 2013. Until then, analysts said, political turmoil and economic instability may well continue.
Author: Reese Erlich, Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia / ar
Editor: Sabina Casagrande