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Tunisia uprising town losing patience

04 December 2012, 14:13

Thala - Patience is wearing thin for the people of Thala, one of the first Tunisian towns to join the revolution nearly two years ago, with an abandoned marble quarry a stark reminder that for them little has improved.

On the edge of town, hundreds of blocks of royal marble remain stacked at the quarry, a resource that could bring in millions of euros in revenue and provide work for some of the 40 000 residents.

Before the revolution in December 2010, relatives of ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali rented the land for next to nothing and tapped its natural riches for their own benefit, according to local marble worker Mohamed Salah Jomli.

But since the fall of the regime, the mines have come under the control of the government, headed by the Islamist party Ennahda, which has yet to decide on the terms of their commercial exploitation.

"We are the children of this region... We want the state to give us mining licences. Then we will welcome anyone interested in investing, whether fellow Tunisians or foreigners," Jomli said.

But until such time, unemployment and tough living conditions in this poor western town, key factors behind the social discontent that sparked the uprising in Tunisia which touched off the Arab Spring, seem unlikely to improve.

As frustration mounts in Thala, where the proportion of people out of work hovers at around 50% compared with 18% at the national level, social unrest, including protests and strikes, is making a comeback.

Thala lies close to the Algerian border, and at the beginning of October, a group of residents announced a surprise threat - to secede from Tunisia if substantial economic aid does not materialise, after a year in which regional investment fell by 30%.

On  the other side of the marginalised central region, meanwhile, a worrying number of Tunisians are boarding boats and risking the often fatal sea crossing to Italy in search of brighter opportunities.

'We are the living dead'

"We are the living dead, we live in the void, we have nothing. We own nothing. The only thing they [the government] do for us is to put us in prison," a protester shouted at a recent demonstration in Thala.

"The socio-economic situation in Thala is as bad as it was under the old regime, and no government promise has been fulfilled," Adel, a schoolteacher, complained.

The authorities have cracked down on the numerous protest movements in central Tunisia in recent months, but have failed to curb the social unrest, with strikes multiplying.

Last week the town of Siliana, 120km southwest of Tunis, was rocked by violence after Tunisia's main trade union UGTT called for a general strike that triggered clashes between protesters and police for five straight days, leaving hundreds wounded.

Siliana protesters were demanding the resignation of governor Ahmed Ezzine Mahjoubi, financial aid and a development plan for the impoverished town and the withdrawal of police from the town, blaming it for the violence.

Calm returned to Siliana only after a deal was negotiated with the government which included sidelining of the governor.

Faced with the rising anger, the government has promised various development initiatives in central and western Tunisia.

In Thala, it announced the creation of an inter-ministerial commission last month tasked with resolving the impasse over the marble quarry, and has also vowed to reopen a marble treatment factory that could employ 200 people.

The ruling coalition defends itself by pointing out that the country has seen a return to economic growth this year - with a forecast of 3.5% - after the severe recession that followed the revolution.

But that argument falls on deaf ears among the residents of Thala, including Ennahda supporters.

"We have to differentiate between the state, the party and the government," said Dhafer Khalfallah, a local member of the Islamist party.

"The party is aware of the gravity of the situation," he insisted.



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