Turmoil in Tunisia threatens to derail path to nationhood

“We cannot build a democracy in an atmosphere poisoned by violence,” said Slim, a waiter working in Tunis’s main Habib Bourguiba Avenue, which was the locus of anti-regime protests that are today aimed at the interim government.

Many Tunisians share his view, including Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi who hinted at a possible delay of the vote after a man was killed in fresh clashes with troops this week.

Tunisians are expected to vote on July 24 for an assembly to draw up a new constitution after former strongman president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in January.

“Our country is heading towards uncertainty. We urgently need to elect a president to save it because I feel like I’m living in occupied territory and this situation should stop,” fumed Mohamed Salah, a restaurant owner.

Abdelhamid, a customer, said: “Our economy is on the edge of a cliff and free elections can’t take place without security. It’s better to extend the election to a later date.”

Ben Ali’s 23-year rule was ended by weeks of demonstrations that sparked similar uprisings against other long-standing regimes across the Arab world.

Tunisia has since struggled to stabilise. The leadership is fragile. Unemployment remains rampant. The economy is expected to grow very little this year, if at all, adding fire to simmering public anger and exasperation.

Just this week at least 600 people were arrested, the interior ministry said Friday.

Most recently protests erupted after former interior minister Farhat Rajhi claimed that Ben Ali loyalists were planning a military coup should the newly legalised Islamist Ennahda (Renaissance) party win the election.

He later back-pedaled on the remarks but was fired as head of the human rights commission and branded a liar by Essebsi.

Unrest in suburbs of the capital also flared up despite a night-time curfew put in place last week. Young men went on rampages in Ettadhamen, burning banks, shops, and police stations as well as looting.

A 25-year-old man died after he was shot in the stomach when troops opened fire to disperse stone-throwing protesters in Slimane last week.

At any sign of unrest shop-keepers immediately board up their properties and hole up until the violence subsides.

Trade unionist Abdeljalil Bedoui accused “anti-revolutionary groups” and Ben Ali loyalists of intentionally instigating violence in order to sap public confidence in the government.

But whether the protests are legitimate or not, most Tunisians just wish for peace of mind.

“I just want to go out freely when I want, where I want, especially as summer arrives. I just want peace!” exclaimed Karima, a young doctor, voicing doubt over the elections due to unrest.

“I want to get out of this stressful situation and never see demonstrations and violent scenes among Tunisians on Avenue Bourguiba. It has transformed into a battle scene.”

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