Tunisian town rebels over being left out in the cold

AFP , Friday 20 Jan 2012

Residents of Makhtar, a mountain town in central Tunisia, take to the streets to demand some attention from the new government, which they feel has forgotten this archaeological treasure

File photo for Tunisia protest (Photo: AP)

Makhtar, a mountain town in central Tunisia battered by the cold and grinding unemployment, decided to rebel to protest the lack of progress since the ouster of the country's despot.

A six-day general strike began spontaneously on 13 January, the day before Tunisia marked the one-year anniversary since strongman Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali fled into exile under pressure from a popular uprising.

Using chopped down trees and tyres, local men put up barricades in the streets of Makthar, 180 kilometres (115 miles) southeast of the capital Tunis on a wind-blown plateau at an altitude of 1,200 metres (4,000 feet).

"We're dying here, there is nothing, we're worn out by the cold and unemployment," said Mounir Louhichi, a local vendor of animal feed.

Bundled up in his burnous, a traditional woolen coat, the merchant enumerates the social problems facing some 12,000 residents.

No running water. No city gas despite being near the pipeline running from Algeria to Italy. No dairy cooperative in the midst of an agricultural region. No factory despite a marble quarry.

And, of course, no jobs. Residents complain about corrupt officials and investors, and the inevitable exodus of job-seekers from the countryside to the cities or the Tunisian coast, the playground of the powerful.

"We are rebelling because it is, quite simply, intolerable," says Ouided Slama, a young English teacher.

And Makthar has inspired other towns to stage protests. Traces of burned tyres can be found on roads throughout the mountainous Siliana province, another sign of the growing social tensions in post-revolution Tunisia.

While mainly a farming region, Siliana is also home to archaeological treasures. Makthar in particular is mentioned in the guidebooks for ruins dating from the Punic and Roman eras.

The sites include a Roman amphitheatre, the biggest thermal springs in north Africa, and a mausoleum from the third century BC – "a true historic treasure," says Kamel Hmidi, 50, an electrician who doubles as a tour guide for visiting foreigners.

Ex-strongman Ben Ali's relatives recognised its value, ransacking the site and taking ancient treasures to the presidential palace in Carthage, Kamel says.

Local people keen to protect their heritage are incensed over a plan to build a museum in Siliana, 35 kilometres away, instead of in Makthar. They also complain of a lack of infrastructure, especially hotels to attract tourists.

Despite their protests and demands, the Tunisian authorities appear to be absent.

"There's no one," says a young man as he draws a big question mark on the closed door of the local branch of Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party which won 40 per cent of the vote in Makthar in the 23 October elections.

Ennahda members are now the key ministers, including the country's premier, in a coalition government with left-leaning allies. A constituent assembly must write a new constitution for Tunisia after 23 years of Ben Ali's dictatorship.

"The election results are not the problem. What we want is for the authorities to come see us!" says Mounia Laroussi, a teacher.

By mid-week the people of Makthar may have finally been heard. Last Wednesday it was announced that President Moncef Marzouki himself is expected to visit within the next 10 days.

So for now, the barricades have come down.

Short link: