In Tunisia, more democracy but still much poverty

Reese Erlich Apr 12, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: In Tunisia this week, there’ve been some of the most serious street protests since the revolution there more than a year ago. With revolution and political freedom, though, does not necessarily come economic advantage.

Reese Erlich reports.

Reese Erlich: Dozens of Tunisians protest outside the town hall in Sidi Bouzid. Fifteen months ago, a street vendor burned himself to death here in defiance of the dictatorship of Zine al Abidine Ben Ali. The uprising that followed was the first act in what became known as the “Arab Spring.”

One of the demonstrators I met, Alawi Tahrir, says political change hasn’t brought better living standards or more jobs.

Alawi Tahrir: Nothing is being changed, sir. We’re just struggling in the same situation. I have master’s degree in English language and I’m still unemployed five years.

Tunisia’s National Institute of Statistics puts the unemployment rate at around 19 percent. And those with university degrees are particularly hard hit.

The governing Islamist Party — Ennahda — says it needs more time to turn things round. Spokesman Said Ferjani:

Said Ferjani: We have to restructure an economy that has failed the people for more than half a century.

Ferjani says the government’s only been in power for a couple of months and constant opposition from ultra-conservative Islamists as well as leftist unions is slowing progress.

Ferjani: We cannot do it in 100 days. We need more time and we need some kind of stability. Some of the people, they are trying to stir trouble in order to not let the government succeed.

Ferjani says the government is encouraging foreign investment to generate jobs. It’s accepted aid from the U.S. to cut its budget deficit. But Tunisians are growing impatient with what many here see as excuses.

Unemployed protestor Alawi Tahrir says the old dictator may be gone, but the country is still being run the same old way.

Alawi Tahrir: The problem is with the system. The same system of Ben Ali is still running in the veins in this government. We want new blood. We want a new system.

At least now, Tunisians have a shot at getting that. Parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled in one year’s time.

But for many here, suffering chronic poverty and unemployment, a year may be too long to wait.

In Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, I’m Reese Erlich for Marketplace.

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