Tunisia: protesters torch Ennahda’s office

Clashes erupted in several cities calling for greater government investment

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Protesters set fire to the office of Tunisia’s Islamist ruling party Ennahda in the city of Siliana as demonstrations erupted nationwide against tough economic conditions.

General strikes were called in the northwestern city of Siliana, Gafsa and in Gabes, which is along the southeastern coast, calling for greater government investment, the Associated Press reported.

Protesters were also commemorating events in November 2012 when people marched to call for a new provincial governor and were dispersed by police wielding shotguns.

The state news agency reported that the success rate of the general strike observed in Siliana “exceeded 90 percent, according to the first estimates of the Tunisian Regional Labour Union (URT).”

Wednesday’s violence erupted when demonstrators hurled rocks at the police, who threw rocks back at them and then drove into the crowd of protesters to try and disperse them, according to AFP.

The protesters seized files and furniture from Ennahda’s office and burned them in the road, while preventing firemen from gaining access to the building, according to reports.

There was no immediate sign of the police.

In Gafsa the strike was called to protest against poverty and lack of development, driving factors behind the popular uprising that toppled Tunisia’s former strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.

General strikes were called in the northwestern city of Siliana, Gafsa and in Gabes, which is along the southeastern coast, calling for greater government investment. Witnesses reported that all shops and cafes were closed.

Tunisia kicked off the Arab Spring by overthrowing its dictator in 2011, partly over the lack of jobs of young people, especially in the impoverished interior. Nearly three years after the revolution, however, the elected Islamist-led government has been unable to jump-start the economy or redress the historic inequalities between the wealthier coast and the poorer interior, according to Associated Press.

“We live in desperate conditions because of unemployment, poverty and misery and we are only asking to live in dignity,” said Badreddine Hamlaoui, a 19 year-old who lost an eye to
birdshot during protests in Siliana exactly one year ago. “I ask myself why Siliana is neglected and excluded from development,” he told AP.

According to the National Institute of Statistics, unemployment is already a high 15.7 percent in the country, but in places like Siliana or Sidi Bouzid, where the revolution first began when a young fruit vendor set himself on fire, it rises to 20-29 percent - double that for young people.

“We continue to be forgotten and marginalized because of the policies of the current government,” said Mohammed Miraoui, head of the local labor union branch in Gafsa. “From one day to another, the economic and social situation is deteriorating with not a single project from the 2012 budget even implemented.”

Since its election in October 2011, Ennahda has ruled with two smaller secular parties, but amid the unrest, unmet expectations and terror attacks following the revolution, has been unable to stem the economy’s slide.

On Monday, the Moody’s international rating service downgraded Tunisia’s government-issued bond rating another notch to Ba3, now three levels below investment grade.

The downgrade follows that of Fitch on Oct. 30 and S&P’s in August, both well below investment grade, making it even more difficult for Tunisia to borrow on international markets and further reducing international confidence in the North African nation’s economy.

Since the revolution, international ratings agencies have been steadily dropping the country’s investment grade in light of the unrest and now a political deadlock.

The demonstrations come after the government acceded to opposition demands to step down in favor of a Cabinet of technocrats before new elections, but talks have now broken down over who will be the caretaker prime minister.

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