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Riots hint at potential chaos in Tunisia's future

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 6, 2012 at 9:33 am •  Published: December 6, 2012

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.

The response was swift and harsh. Police attacked the demonstrators, while Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali described the entire affair as a plot by the opposition and remnants of the old regime, enraging the protesters further.

The crowds grew to more than 10,000 people, many of whom engaged in running street battles with police before the army finally arrived. Five days and more than 300 injured later — police and protesters alike — the governor was suspended and the strike was called off.

Lawrence said many of the protesters had probably voted for Ennahda but now consider it responsible for Siliana's problems and the police actions.

"They want dignified jobs, and they want to be able to protest in a dignified way without getting shot in the eye with birdshot, which is why they were lining up with Molotov cocktails for the next round," he said. For many, the police brutality was reminiscent of the days of Ben Ali.

Ennahda is feeling pressure from more than just unions.

It has to deal with resurgent hardline Islamists, known as Salafis, who have staged protests of their own and even attacked the U.S. embassy in September. Many Tunisians have linked the hardliners' rising popularity to the country's dismal economic prospects.

The conflict with the union also is part of a widening rift between Ennahda and secular parties in its ruling coalition, tensions that could threaten the year-old government.

"We could be on the verge of, if not a collapse of the government, then a serious challenge to Ennahda's leadership," Lawrence said.

By Monday, the people of Siliana were cleaning up calm but devastated streets. But on Tuesday in the capital Tunis, supporters of Ennahda attacked members of the country's main labor union, the General Union of Tunisian Workers, in apparent retaliation for their support of the Siliana strike.

The head of the union then warned that the "doors of confrontation were open" and announced a nationwide strike for Dec. 13. The last time the union held general strikes in 1984 and 1978, the country was convulsed by riots.