TAZARKA, Tunisia (Reuters) - Ridha Ben Salha is fed up waiting for Tunisia’s revolution to translate into a better life for his town.
He and a group of his friends and neighbors spent weeks camped outside Tazarka’s biggest employer, a gas and oil processing plant, to pressure its owners into giving more jobs to local people and putting more money into the community.
They had hoped after President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was thrown out in January there would be some relief from poverty and inequality.
But that hasn’t happened, and people in Tazarka, 90 km (55 miles) south-east of the capital, are getting angry.
“All we are asking for is our rights,” said Ben Salha outside the site, which he and dozens of others brought to a standstill late last month by blocking trucks from leaving with their cargoes of cooking gas.
Tazarka stands as a warning to Tunisia’s post-revolution authorities of what could happen to the country if they don’t match the new freedoms won in the revolution with improvement in ordinary people’s living standards -- and fast.
“Why should a population support a democracy if they do not get anything, if the work does not come?” said a Western diplomat in the capital Tunis.
Tunisia’s revolt began when a provincial vegetable seller set fire to himself in protest at official repression and swelled into demonstrations that forced Ben Ali to flee. Its success inspired uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria that have changed the political landscape of the Middle East.
Last month, the north African country was praised again as a beacon for the region when it held its first ever democratic election and handed power to a moderate Islamist government.
But behind Tunisia’s progress toward democracy lies an uncomfortable truth: in the 10 months since the revolution, the standard of living for the average Tunisian has got worse.
The new government, which knows the revolution was about joblessness and poverty as much as ending repression, understands the need to improve living standards. But it is handicapped by the sharp economic slow-down that has followed Ben Ali’s departure.
Foreign tourists -- Tunisia’s biggest source of revenue -- have canceled bookings and some foreign investors have put their projects on hold.
The conflict in neighboring Libya, Tunisia’s principal trade partner in the region, has further hurt growth.
From 3 percent in the last year of Ben Ali’s rule, growth in gross domestic product (GDP) is forecast to drop to about 0.2 percent this year, though officials expect it to bounce back to 4.5 percent in 2012.
Unemployment, at 13 percent at the end of 2010, will rise to 14.5 percent this year, according to central bank projections. The jobless rate among young people is much higher.
Central Bank governor Mustapha Kamel Nabli has warned of the consequences of economic failure.
“The democratic process to which the Tunisian people ... aspire will succeed only if economic and social conditions are favorable,” he wrote in his annual report.
Tazarka’s tale is one of dashed hopes and grinding poverty.
The town is a short drive down the coast from Hammamet, a chic resort where German and French tourists stay in all-inclusive beach resorts surrounded by bougainvillea.
Before the revolution, the former president’s nephew used to have a villa there, with a swimming pool and quartz rocks decorating the garden.
On the road to Tazarka, the landscape quickly turns to scrub. The villages by the roadside are ramshackle collections of rough-built shacks with heaps of rubbish strewn between them.
Just outside the town, an elderly farmer and his wife are bent double in a field, planting carrots. There are few cars. Young men buzz around on mopeds. Farmers use horse-drawn carts to haul their produce.
It was here, three years ago, that the plant was built in a plot by the sea.
Owned by Italian oil company ENI and the Tunisian state energy firm, it processes oil and gas pumped onshore from the Baraka and Maamoura fields in the Mediterranean.
People in Tazarka hoped it would bring them jobs and money.
But they were quickly disappointed. People who took part in the blockade at the plant told Reuters only 20 local people were hired to work there, in unskilled roles such as security guards.
There was talk of the plant’s owners making contributions to infrastructure improvements in the town, such as new road construction. That, the protesters said, never happened.
The townspeople did not press the issue. The time was not right. Ben Ali’s police state cracked down on any dissent, and in any case, people had come to expect neglect from the authorities.
The revolution changed all that.
The local mayor was replaced, and with renewed hope that the new authorities would support them, Tazarka residents tried again to get what they felt was their due.
They drew up a list of demands to present to the plant: a grant of 3 billion Tunisian dinars ($2 million) each year to the mayor’s office, employment for 100 local people, $120,000 for local youth associations and $2,000 for each of the town’s 300 poorest families.
The new mayor tried to help. Meetings were held; the regional governor’s office and even the police and military talked to the protesters.
But when no money was forthcoming, local people decided to take radical action. They set up roadblocks outside all the entrances to the plant to stop it operating. Picket lines were manned around the clock. Protesters slept under tarpaulins and cook tinned sardines on campfires.
The blockade ended earlier this month after the government had talks with ENI representatives and the state energy company. The industry ministry said in a statement solutions to the underlying dispute are still being explored.
The townspeople have no choice but to wait -- at least for now.
“There is only one thing in this town: this,” said Abdellatif Lassad, 23, who left Tazarka to find work in Paris and was back home for a vacation.
“There are lots of people in Tazarka who do not have work. There is just the post office, the police station and that’s it,” he said.
An executive with ENI in Tunisia said he was not authorized to talk about the dispute. The company’s headquarters in Italy did not respond to a request for comment.
Tazarka’s story could apply to any one of the hundreds of Tunisian towns just like it.
The caretaker government has obtained a big aid package from the European Union and Group of Eight to help stave off a looming economic crisis. The Islamist-led coalition which will soon take power has also encouraged investors by promising liberal, business-friendly policies.
But it is unlikely the government will be able to improve things fast enough to head off protests, especially in the poorer provinces away from tourist hot-spots on the coast.
Trade unions, among the biggest movers behind the revolution, are likely to resume strikes and sit-ins, which they put on hold for the election. Jobless youths could also riot, as they have done several times already this year.
“Protests by a mixture of disenfranchised youths and ...(union) activists have already caused the fall of two cabinets since the removal of Ben Ali,” said Jean-Baptiste Gallopin of consultancy Control Risks.
“The new government should take note.”
Additional reporting by Tarek Amara and Abdelaziz Boumzar; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall