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In Tunisia, leaders struggle to kick the problems that toppled Ben Ali

One balmy evening in Tunis three weeks ago, a young man named Redouan and several friends piled into a car and headed for a nearby art exhibit, intent on burning paintings.

“We’d heard the paintings insulted Islam,” he says. “When we arrived there was already a crowd outside – and lots of police.”

By then the exhibit had already been ransacked by deeply conservative Salafi Muslims like Redouan. The vandalism triggered days of rioting in Tunis and other cities. Although some of the rioters were Salafis, most appear to have been simply young, poor, and angry.

It was the latest in a series of protests, riots, and labor strikes since Tunisians ousted dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali last year. The disturbances highlight the new stakes of an old problem: chronic economic malaise that leaders now fear could endanger Tunisia’s emerging democracy.

Similar problems face Tunisia’s Arab Spring peers, Egypt and Libya. In all three, youth unemployment, corruption, wealth gaps, and under-development helped fuel uprisings that toppled dictators. Those leaders are gone, but the economic problems that led to their downfalls persist. 

“We’re not forecasting a second revolution in any of the three countries,” says William Lawrence, lead North Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based NGO. “But a combination of bad economic trends and poor political process could create a crisis of legitimacy in any one of them.”

Votes, but where’s the bread?

Tunisia’s President Moncef Marzouki said in an interview this month with National Public Radio that he feared economic grievances could lead to “a revolution within a revolution.” Leaders have appealed for patience while the government tries to keep order and start reforms.

Egypt, meanwhile, has plunged into political limbo that many fear could see the gains of its uprising reversed. The ruling military council has dissolved a parliament led by the Muslim Brotherhood and curbed the powers of the new president, the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi. Whoever prevails must tackle high unemployment and anger over the army’s business interests.

In Libya, militias that joined forces to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi last year have taken to squabbling, sometimes violently. An interim government appointed by the National Transitional Council (NTC) is struggling to keep the peace as economic problems, from shoddy infrastructure to youth unemployment, breed trouble. 

“What is the future for all these young Libyans? At the moment, for many it seems to be in belonging to a militia,” says John Hamilton, a contributing editor to African Energy magazine and director with Cross-Border Information, a British risk assessment firm.

In theory, leaders with a clear mandate might use Libya’s oil wealth for development and job creation. That could make national assembly elections slated for July 7 a make-or-break moment.

“The NTC and the executive don’t regard themselves as having sovereign authority, so all sorts of important strategic decisions have been postponed until after the elections,” Mr. Hamilton says.

Youths are the ticket

Tunisia, while more stable, is short on cash. Its economy is built mainly on tourism, agriculture, and manufacturing. Under Ben Ali, a veneer of prosperity in coastal cities masked neglect in the interior.

A foretaste of revolt came in 2008 in the Gafsa mining region, when workers rioted over allegedly corrupt hiring practices by the state phosphate company. Two years later, the self-immolation of vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi triggered the uprising that brought down Ben Ali.

Revolution brought both freedom and turmoil. Last year economic growth flat-lined, tourism earnings fell by a third, and scores of foreign companies bailed. While foreign investment is up 42.8 percent from this time last year, overall investment is down 20.1 percent in rural areas where unemployment – and violence – are most acute.

Meanwhile, Ben Ali’s fall has exposed cultural tensions that could combust when coupled with economic discontent. 

The most recent evidence of that came on June 10, after Salafis vandalized an art show in La Marsa, a posh Tunis suburb, that included images they considered insulting to Islam. Some works reportedly caricatured Mecca and conservative Muslims, and one showed the word “Allah” as a string of ants.

“Normally we seek to invite people peacefully to Islam,” says Redouan, from the working-class district of El Kram, who declined to give his surname. “But defaming God and the prophet? That’s a red line.”

Redouan and his friends were unable to enter the art exhibit and returned home. By then, things in El Kram had spun out of control as hundreds of young men filled the streets.

“The Salafis were heading for the art show,” says Zied Jaziri, 26, a photographer from El Kram who watched the rioters. “Others were just taking advantage of the chaos.”

The mob hurled stones at police, who fired back with teargas canisters, Mr. Jaziri says. The following evening, young men in El Kram burned tires in defiance of a curfew, again clashing with police. Neither Jaziri nor Redouan took part in the violence, they say.

“Many people in El Kram don’t have jobs,” Jaziri says by way of explanation. “For years they heard Ben Ali talking about accomplishments, but saw nothing. They can’t wait any longer to work.”

Authorities said that mobs around the country burned police stations and several offices of the Union Generale de Travailleurs Tunisiens, Tunisia’s largest trade union. Over 160 people were arrested, dozens were injured, and one man was shot dead.

Both Salafi groups and the Ennahda party, which leads the government, called for competing marches on Friday, June 15 – a game of chicken that was defused by an interior ministry ban on all demonstrations that day.

Ultimately, the best hope for stability in North Africa may lie in its youths, says Lawrence from the ICG.

“There are millions of educated, unemployed youth looking for things to do,” he said. “If they were mobilized, their economic and social entrepreneurship could help solve a wide variety of societal problems.”

That idea resonates with Redouan. He was bored, idle, and a regular drinker until he committed himself to Islam in late 2010. Today he is still unemployed despite holding a degree in information technology.

“I’ll always have religion,” he says. “What I’m still looking for is a job.”

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