A cold wind blows fine phosphate dust into the eyes and clothes of a dozen people staging a sit-in at a bleak industrial site in Redeyef, central Tunisia, where the protesters vow to remain until they are given permanent jobs.
“We are asking for rights,” said Hassan Nasr. “I have been doing a job planting trees for the agriculture ministry for 15 years without a contract or any security. I am 63 and I have six children.”
Mr Nasr is part of a group of 60 agricultural workers who have been preventing phosphate – a crucial Tunisian export – from leaving the processing site in Redeyef in order to exert pressure on the authorities.
The frequent and often crippling labour unrest here and in neighbouring mining towns in the phosphate-rich province of Gafsa is something Tunisia can ill-afford.
Three years after a popular uprising overthrew the dictatorial regime of Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali, the country has an unemployment rate of 16.7 per cent and the growth rate has slowed to 2.7 per cent – not enough to absorb new entrants to the jobs market and reduce the poverty that drives many youths to flee the country for Europe.
Although Tunisia’s Islamist Nahda party and its secular opponents last month agreed a consensus constitution, raising hope for a more prosperous and democratic future, in poor inland provinces such as Gafsa a toxic mixture of economic hardship and deep-rooted political mistrust offers a sombre picture of the challenges ahead.
At the state-owned Gafsa Phosphate Company, stoppages have slashed output from an annual average of 7.5m before the 2011 revolution to 3.3m tonnes last year. In an effort to appease local anger over unemployment the company has nearly doubled its workforce from 5,500 to 9,000 since 2011, despite the drop in production.
Discontent is exacerbated by past disputes over corruption in the allocation of jobs at the company, which sparked a rare revolt three years before the revolution. In 2008 locals spent six months fighting street battles with Mr Ben Ali’s security forces who laid siege to the remote town. Many in the region proclaim proudly that they lit the first spark of the 2011 uprising.
Adnan al-Hajj, a trade union leader who was sentenced to eight years in prison for his role in that revolt, said not much had changed.
“There is anger because the criteria governing appointments at the company are still not clear,” he said. “Those who were in power, especially Nahda, refused to involve civil society in the selection process. Appointments have been made on the basis of political loyalty.”
His accusations are echoed by secular activists in Gafsa who openly charge the Islamists of favouring their own.
Mohsen Soudani, the head of Nahda’s office in the region, dismisses the charges as politically motivated.
Evoking the sharp polarisation between Islamists and secularists which almost scuppered the country’s political transition last summer, he accused local opposition groups of trying to undermine Nahda because they could not beat it in elections.
“This is ideological enmity and if they could they would push us out of the country. We tried hard to extend our hand to them, especially the losers, but they don’t believe in dialogue,” he said.
Mr Soudani complained that Nahda’s offices in Gafsa were burnt down in November by protesters linked to the Popular Front, a leftwing opposition grouping. The Front’s Gafsa spokesman, Amar Amroussia, denied the accusation, saying the fire was the work of “thugs”.
Despite the acrimony, there is agreement across the political divide that the region needs investment to create jobs beyond those provided by the overburdened phosphates company. There are calls from all sides for a proportion of the revenues of phosphate exports to be ploughed back into the local economy where unemployment is said to be higher than the national average and where locals say infrastructure is poor, crime is high and phosphate pollution is growing.
“We got almost nothing after the revolution in terms of development or reform,” said Mr Hajj, and accused all political parties of failing to address the region’s problems.
“The parties of the left remain stuck in their dogmatism and have not been able to move beyond slogans and ideology,” he said. “They have failed to give the necessary attention to the movement of social contestation. As for Nahda, they do not appear much in public. They are working on building support through traditional tribal networks.”
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