Tunisia struggles to tame revolutionary spirit

TUNIS Tue Feb 15, 2011 10:56am EST

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TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisians found the experience of forcing out their president so exhilarating that they are finding it difficult to stop. A month after a tide of popular protests pushed authoritarian leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali from office, many people are taking the principle of people power and applying it to ever corner of their life.

Hotel workers have refused to clean guests' rooms until they get more pay, telecoms workers threatened to strike over a plan to privatize their company, and disgruntled airport workers have halted international flights.

School pupils protested against their teachers, and then the teachers rallied outside the education ministry to complain that the pupils were being allowed to run wild.

"People seem to have misunderstood what liberty is really about," said Nejmeddine, a businessman in the Tunisian capital.

"They just seem to want to do whatever they please and if you try to say anything to them they just say: 'I'll set myself on fire'," he said, a reference to the self-immolation by jobless man Mohamed Bouazizi which started the revolution.

Some people in Tunisia say the discovery of personal freedom should be celebrated after two decades spent living in a repressive police state. But others worry about the impact on the spluttering economy.

Trade ministry data showed that the value of exports in January fell by 1.5 percent compared to the same period last year. "If a few weeks of reduced activity are manageable, a longer period will be dramatic," the ministry said.

Just as Tunisia's revolution provided the template for Egypt's uprising, Egypt could experience the same problems in the aftermath. Already, some Egyptians emboldened by protests there are demanding better pay.

HOTEL STRIKE

Tunisian Tourism Minister Mehdi Houass has every reason to lament the strikes and protests in his country: they are spreading to his sector at a time when he is trying to persuade the tourists who provide 11 percent of his country's hard currency earnings to come back.

Even in the Sheraton Tunis hotel, where he was meeting a delegation of French tour operators, staff said they had staged a brief strike over pay. The restaurant was shut for one evening and one morning chamber maids did not make up the rooms.

But the minister said this kind of thing was a positive sign. "Tunisia has changed. We have become a democracy and that means that people can express themselves," he said in a conference room at the Sheraton.

"There is a lot of injustice and we need to correct that. ... This will cause problems for some sectors of the economy, that is true, but we cannot continue to work as we did before. We cannot hide our heads in the sand."

At times though, it seems Tunisia risks becoming engulfed in protests and strikes.

On one morning last week, a young man was wheeling canisters of fuel through a street near the capital's Pasteur Square on a shopping cart. He was stocking up because the truck drivers who distribute petrol were preparing to strike.

Nearby, a group of students mustered at a roundabout at the start of a protest march. And down the street, about 15 staff from Tunisia's state-controlled Internet agency were on strike in the street outside their office to demand a pay rise.

"These are work-related demands that go back five years," said Atef, one of the strikers. "We wanted to do this because we do not want to be forgotten."

APPEAL FOR PATIENCE

The wave of strikes was alarming enough for Tunisian caretaker president Fouad Mebazza, in a rare public appearance, to go on state television to urge people demanding wage rises and better living conditions to be patient.

Most strikers are likely to be disappointed. Ben Ali's economic stewardship was praised by the International Monetary Fund. It is unlikely that with him gone there will be a dramatic surge in jobs and growth.

"Tunisia has never in its history known such an outpouring of protest movements. Everyone wants everything, and right away," La Press de Tunisie, a newspaper, said in an editorial. "The cascade of demands ... risks extinguishing the revolution."

On Facebook -- the social networking site which was used to organize the uprising against Ben Ali -- thousands of young people are now forming groups to persuade their countrymen to stop their strikes and go back to work.

Bab B'net Boulevard in Tunis is the heart of the country's new people power scene.

It is home to the ministries of education, social affairs, justice and religion -- each guarded by soldiers standing behind razor wire barricades that were erected in response to the violence in the days after Ben Ali's overthrow.

The cobbled, tree-lined street is occupied every day by a shifting cast of protesters, strikers and petitioners.

"There are protests every morning, every day, everywhere. When will it stop?" asked a taxi driver as he dropped off a fare at the boulevard.

Mohieddine Frikha, a 43-year-old man from Tunis, was one of a group of about 30 men standing at the steps to the education ministry.

They were all unemployed and they came to demand the government give them jobs. Some were from provincial cities, including Gassrine and Tozeur, and had been sleeping rough in the capital for days.

Dressed in a denim jacket and smoking a cigarette, Frikha was angry about his standard of living, and adamant that after Ben Ali was swept aside, life for him and his fellow protesters must get better.

"This revolution should solve our problems," he said. "I have been 18 years without a job and I have two children."

But more than the anger, he seemed to relish the fact that after years living in fear of informers and secret police, he was able to stand in the street and say what was on his mind.

"Before we could not even talk," he said. "This is the first time that I have been able to speak freely."

(Additional reporting by Tarek Amara and Abdelaziz Boumzar; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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