Tunisia marks its Arab Spring revolution amid tensions

AFP , Monday 14 Jan 2013

Tunisians mark the second anniversary on Monday of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's flight into exile in the first of the Arab Spring uprisings but insecurity and social tensions persist

(Front L-R) Tunisian President of the Constituent Assembly Mustapha Ben Jaafar, President Moncef Marzouki and Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali listen to the playing of the national anthem during a ceremony marking the second year anniversary of the revolution in Tunis January 14, 2013. ( Photo: Reuters)

Tunisians on Monday marked two years since the flight into exile of veteran dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali amid a climate of uncertainty marked by social tension, a weak economy, threats from jihadists and a political impasse.

President Moncef Marzouki, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali and parliamentary speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar saluted the national flag at a modest ceremony in Tunis to mark the occasion.

The three men, who represent the ruling coalition headed by the Islamist party Ennahda, gathered at the Kasbah, next to the government's headquarters, for the brief ceremony, which was attended by the leaders of the main political parties.

Shortly afterwards, Jebali, the secretary general of Tunsia's main labour union, Hocine Abassi, and Wided Bouchamaoui, representing Tunisian employers, signed a "social pact" at the National Constituent Assembly.

With unemployment considered a driving factor behind the revolution, and with Tunisia still rocked by repeated protests over poor living conditions, some of them deadly, the signing of the accord was loaded with symbolic importance.

In the city centre, political activists prepared to march down Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the epicentre of the mass uprising that toppled Ben Ali on January 14, 2011 and touched off the Arab Spring.

The demonstrators included supporters and critics of the government, among them hundreds of members of the secular opposition parties and Islamists, and there was a heavy police presence.

Frustration at the government's failure to address poverty and rising unemployment has mounted since the revolution.

On Sunday, the army deployed in the southern border town of Ben Guerdane after a week of clashes between police and residents demanding development projects to revive the area's local economy and reduce unemployment.

And the mausoleum in Sidi Bou Said, a prime Tunisian tourism destination, was ravaged by fire at the weekend in a suspected arson attack.

Several shrines dedicated to Muslim saints have been torched or looted in recent months in Tunisia, in acts blamed on hardline Salafists.

Speaking in parliament after the signing ceremony, Jebali, from the ruling Ennahda party, promised to "redouble efforts" to forge a national consensus, and spoke of his desire to enlarge the ruling coalition to overcome the political divisions plaguing the country.

Parliamentary speaker Ben Jaafar, who has strongly criticised the deadlock over the drafting of the new constitution, pledged that the future text would guarantee the goals of the revolution, "establishing a democratic state and the rotation of power".

But reflecting the failure to reach a consensus so far, no electoral calendar has been drawn up, with the government hoping to hold elections in the summer or autumn of 2013.

Ennahda's veteran leader Rached Ghannouchi also insisted on dialogue to overcome the political impasse.

"We want to bring all the Tunisian people together, through united political forces capable of dialogue, to agree on a calendar for the big political events, particularly the date of the elections," he told AFP.

Former premier Beji Caid Essebsi, who heads the secular opposition party Call of Tunisia, expressed concerned about the threat from radical Islamists, speaking at Monday's ceremony.

"It is the (Tunisian) flag, which represents everyone. But some want to replace it with another, the black flag (of the Salafists). The people must remain vigilant because there is a threat, as we have seen in Sidi Bou Said," he told AFP.

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