Marginalized poor on Tunis outskirts cling to embattled government

ETTADAMEN, TUNIS Tue Aug 6, 2013 3:07am EDT

People gather outside the Constituent Assembly headquarters during a protest to demand the ouster of the Islamist-dominated government, in Tunis in this July 28, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Anis Mili/Files

People gather outside the Constituent Assembly headquarters during a protest to demand the ouster of the Islamist-dominated government, in Tunis in this July 28, 2013 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Anis Mili/Files

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ETTADAMEN, TUNIS (Reuters) - Faisal the repairman doesn't have time for the anti-government protests shaking the capital 10 kilometers away. Just as before Tunisia's 2011 revolution, his main preoccupation is keeping food on the table.

The demonstrators on central Tunis' manicured streets pay lip service to the problems of people like him in the trash-littered streets of Ettadamen suburb, he says, but they never reach out to help.

"The elites and secular opposition are stirring up problems just to bring their people to power, because they can't through elections," says the graying 36-year-old, waving his leathered hands. "They don't care about real Tunisians like us. We voted, gave our voice, and now they want to take that away in our name."

Tunisia, cradle of the Arab spring, has been rocked by violent clashes since the assassination of a secular, opposition politician on July 25. The protesters want an end to Islamist rule. Some have drawn inspiration from the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Ettadamen is one of the largest, poorest suburbs of Tunis. Unemployment here is rising, prices are soaring, and there is a general sense of economic hardship some say has worsened since Tunisians ousted autocratic leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Yet most of the impoverished and pious residents cling to Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party they helped bring to power.

Ennahda is facing a political crisis. The opposition has organized growing daily protests calling for the government's ouster. Thousands of regular Tunisians have joined the rallies, pointing to a worsening economy and draft election law and constitution, now eight months late.

But in Ettadamen, where vendors in tattered shirts set up makeshift shops with plywood and tarp, residents are wary of an opposition they say represents middle and upper class interests.

"The opposition is good at pointing out problems but what are their solutions? What have they done to show they serve the people?" says Mohsen Dreib, a house painter.

Residents from the rag-tag outskirts of Tunis are proud to have been among the first to take to the streets in their thousands against Ben Ali, in a revolt that took the world by surprise and sparked a wave of uprisings across the region.

Despite their huge numbers - the district has more than 600,000 residents out of Tunis's 2.5 million - people here do not feel they are being heard. Crowds of locals rushed toward a Reuters team that visited, clamoring to give their views.

"The opposition has been talking to us for years about freedom and democracy," says Abdelaziz Jebali, 34, who works at a small mobile phone shop.

"Now we see they have flipped the principles they have lectured us about ... just because Islamists won power."

STILL THE OUTCASTS

Continued support in Ettadamen suggests Ennahda is still strong among core supporters from the poor masses that have been hardest hit by the country's ongoing economic woes.

That may not last forever, however, if the party does not find a way to combat a deepening sense of disenfranchisement.

Many have already lost patience, like Bariza Qadry, a 45-year-old mother of four wearing a long Islamic headscarf.

"Medicine is more expensive, water is more expensive, electricity is more expensive. Everything is more expensive. What do I feed my kids today?" she says.

"I have nothing to feed them, and I blame the government for this. They need to fix the country. We are afraid."

Ettadamen residents are angry that Tunisia's shaky transition to democracy - once upheld as a model for fledgling "Arab Spring" states - has left them as outcasts.

There is a history of state marginalization of Tunisia's poorer classes from the country's rural interior, where most residents come from.

"I'm 59 and I have no future. I used to work at the municipality but I was injured on the job and now I can't work," says Mahmoud, a balding man hobbling on crutches. "I get 250 dinars a month (about $150) but I have to spend about 400 ($240)."

Opponents of Ennahda say it exploits these hardships for political gain. On Saturday, tens of thousands rallied in Ennahda in one of the largest protests since Ben Ali's ouster.

Protesters were bused in to Kasbah Square and offered free meals to break the Ramadan fast - which critics point to as a sign that support for Ennahda comes from bribery, not ideology.

Back on the city's outskirts, Marwa Mounir, a young office worker in a long pink veil, counsels critics for patience. She argues that no one - the opposition or Ennahda - has a quick fix for a country that has lived through decades of dictatorship.

"Any country that has a revolution will need at least 10 years to reform," the 35-year-old says.

"Yes there are problems, but let's be patient. The country suffered years of theft and corruption. That doesn't get fixed in a day and night."

(Additional reporting by Tarek Amara; editing by Janet McBride)

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