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Social and labor unrest escalates in Tunisia as the government is running out of ideas

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Over the past weekend, the Tunisian central government dismissed two senior provincial officials in the restive Tataouine province located in the southeast, near the Libyan border.  In the capital, Prime Minister Chahed also fired his finance and education ministers, in a move likely related to Tataouine unrest, but also tied to other broader governance and political issues.

The firing came as a resulting of growing social unrest that has rocked the region for weeks, with authorities unable to stop the crisis from escalating. Located some 500 kilometers south of Tunis, Tataouine has been in riot mode for several weeks with authorities essentially neglecting it and unable to provide an answer to the population’s demands. Among the grievances listed by the locals is their inability to find jobs, when, they say, oil companies are thriving and extracting oil there.

Last week’s visit of the Tunisian Prime Minister (PM) Youssef Chahed to the region brought the Tataouine province in the forefront of the news, prompting the PM to order steps to restore some level of confidence in the central government. Those sacked were the governor and the deputy governor (sous-prefet), as well as the regional commander of the national guard and gendarmerie in charge of security in the region.

While blaming local authorities and sacking regional administration chiefs, the central government is really to blame of a lack of initiative and a shortage of creative ideas. The types of grievances put forward by local communities cannot be solved by the limited powers to local governors. The waves of protests in Tataouine and its surrounding communities have been particularly difficult for the Chahed administration because the powerful labor union, Union générale tunisienne du travail (UGTT) has sided with the protesters and has been providing political support to force the hands of the central authorities.

The protests meant that schools could not operate normally and roads closed to traffic. Protestors have set up tents in various areas of the city for several weeks. Oil companies are particularly targets, and considered as bad players, seen as contributors to the perpetual misery facing the local population. In an earlier agreement signed by the government and the community leaders, 70% of the local youth were supposed to be employed by oil companies, through a process known here as “positive discrimination. “  This step never happened. But following a new wave of recent meetings, the minister of social affairs, Mohamed Trabelsi, pledged once again that things will change.

Hundreds of miles northwest of where Tataouine is, and toward the Algerian border, the region of Kef is facing very similar troubles.  Social unrest erupted after the closure of an auto spare part manufacturer closed its factory there. Hundreds of workers and their families took to the street, resulting in violent confrontations with the security services.  And the central government has no answer to these grievances, with critics saying the there is no political will to solve these labor and social problems.

For Prime Minister Chahed, the profile of Tunisian that he inherited when he was appointed head of government is no trivial issue. With not enough money to appease social tension, aggressive protestors continuing their protests, companies shutting down or threatening to do so, and foreign partners not so quick at helping, stabilizing Tunisia is almost like a surgeon dealing a patient with multiple diseases. For Chahed, while trying to shore up support from Western allies on the financial side, what’s left is tweaking the cabinet in the hope that the right ministers and leaders find their proper position.  In this context, Chahed has reportedly fired this week Lamia Zribi and Neji Jalloul, ministers of finance and education, respectively.  In the case of Zribi, the dismissal was apparently tied to an argument over the depreciation of the national currency the dinar. Jalloul’s dismissal came as a result of pressure from labor unions who did not like his policies.

But these dismissals coincided with the explosive social unrest of Tataouine and can also be tied to these events.

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