Tunisia's embattled leaders face rising social discontent
Tunisian policemen stand guard as protesters shout slogans during an anti government demonstration on Nov. 15, 2013 [AFP]

Tunisia's sluggish economic recovery is spurring a growing number of strikes and protests, with the discontent compounding the ruling Islamist party's woes amid a political crisis and growing insecurity.

Public offices, businesses and entire regions have since the summer been staging walkouts and demanding pay rises, extra staff, hospitals and development projects -- adding to a sense of growing turmoil in the birthplace of the 2011 Arab Spring.

The number of working hours lost through strikes rose by 71 percent in October compared with September, according to the social affairs ministry.

In November, the situation appears to have gotten even worse. On Wednesday alone, workers unions and civil society groups called general strikes in three regions -- Siliana, Gabes and Gafsa.

"Clearly the economic situation today is very difficult and cannot support this level of strikes," said Ezzedine Saidane, an independent economist.

He attributed the economic difficulties primarily to the political crisis, which has dragged on for months in the absence of any agreement between the ruling Islamist party Ennahda and its secular opponents on the formation of a non-partisan transitional government.

Saidane argues that the current 3.0 percent growth rate is insufficient to bring down unemployment significantly or to launch major development projects, two pressing issues for young Tunisians.

Joblessness and regional inequality were driving factors behind the popular uprising that unseated former strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, inspiring protests across the Middle East and North Africa that toppled leaders in Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

Meanwhile, the lack of functioning state institutions and a rise in attacks by Islamist militants continue to deter investors.

For two years now, Ennahda has repeated promises of public spending and recruitment to meet the country's social demands, constantly resorting to loans to fulfil its commitments, an option that is becoming increasingly difficult.

On Monday, international ratings agency Moody's downgraded Tunisia's sovereign debt rating one notch, while maintaining a negative outlook.

Moody's cited the ongoing political uncertainty as the main factor, as well as increased external funding challenges, exacerbated by delayed economic reforms and the persistently large deficits in the country's fiscal and external accounts.

Saidane said the government's policies had left it without any room for manoeuver next year.

"When you look at the draft budget, you can see that 40 percent is allocated to salaries, 40 percent to debts and subsidies (on essential goods) and just 20 percent on social and economic development."

Union blames government 'nonchalance'

For the powerful UGTT workers union, which plays a key role in organising the strikes, the authorities who have been calling for months for a "social truce" are solely responsible for the current situation.

In a statement this week, it slammed "the nonchalance of the government in implementing certain agreements, concluded but still not applied after nearly a year and a half," saying that was why social movements were signing up for the strikes.

Some reject this argument, however, like Nejib Mrabet, who heads the Gafsa Phosphate Company (CPG).

The state-run producer of the valuable mineral, which represented 10 percent of the budget in 2010, the year before Ben Ali's ouster, is the main employer in the neglected central Gafsa region.

Mrabet said that despite the company hiring 2,600 people since the revolution, it was paralysed by the disruptions that the social movements agitated for and was running at only 30 percent of capacity.

"The company cannot afford another year of uncertainty and deficit," he was quoted as saying by the official TAP news agency, adding that if the situation continued, managers and employees might have to take forced leave in 2014.

Even Ennahda itself has not been immune to the growing social mistrust plaguing Tunisia, with some party members criticising certain government decisions, such as where to locate five new university-linked hospitals.

That decision has provoked anger in Gafsa and Gabes.

Lotfi Zitoune, who was an advisor to former Islamist prime minister Hamadi Jebali, called the failure to invest in those regions a "clear example of the dubious work of the government ... in the context of political instability and difficult economic circumstances."

"It will revive accusations of nepotism and regional favouritism," he wrote in a scathing article posted on his Facebook page.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]