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Tunisians protest in Tunis on the second anniversary of the uprising that ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Tunisians protest in Tunis on the second anniversary of the uprising that ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Tunisia faces a return to bad old days

Two years after its revolution, Tunisia is struggling with high unemployment and rising levels of political violence.

TUNIS // Two years after the revolution that overthrew an authoritarian president and kick-started the Arab Spring, Tunisia is struggling with high unemployment and rising levels of political violence.

After sounding the alarm for months over the rise of religious extremists, the opposition has now warned that the latest threat to the North African country's democratic transition is the vigilante groups that are allied to the elected government.

Tunisia has yet to witness the almost daily clashes that now characterise nearby Egypt's rowdy politics, or the rampant assassinations and kidnappings of militia-plagued Libya to the east.

However, the rise in violence is a shock for this once calm, largely middle-class North African nation of 10 million.

The country's stability and prosperity came at the price of a brutal, decades-long dictatorship that was finally overthrown on January 14, 2011, following a popular uprising.

In its aftermath, a lot of pent-up tensions have spilled out.

Differences of political opinion, or simply demands for jobs and benefits, are increasingly being expressed through violence, threatening Tunisia's efforts to become a democracy after half a century of dictatorship.

Just last week, residents of Ben Guerdane, a town on the border with Libya, battled police and set fire to cars during three days of protests over the closure of the frontier on which their livelihood depends.

Following the country's first free elections in October 2011, a moderate Islamist party allied with two secular parties came to power and began the process of writing a new constitution - but the country is still plagued by economic woes and sporadic violence.

The latest groups in the spotlight are the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution, which the opposition claims are allied with the government and used to attack its opponents.

Their rise comes as the salafis, ultraconservative Muslims that push for a more pious society, have gone underground following a government crackdown after their attack last September on the US Embassy over an amateur film made in the US that insulted the Prophet Mohammed.

Instead, the violence seems now to be coming from these new leagues, which have about 300 chapters throughout the country. They have been implicated in attacks on the main union headquarters as well as several meetings of a new opposition party that includes figures from the previous regime.

"They are a threat to the civil peace and the democratic transition in Tunisia," said Samir Taieb, an opposition member in the legislative assembly. He added that many of the leagues' members had been arrested committing acts of violence, only to be released because of their political connections.

Many opposition figures have called for the leagues to be dissolved. The groups were legalised five months ago and grew out of the neighbourhood-watch committees that sprung up in the chaotic days after the revolution to protect residential areas, explained Mohammed Maalej, the head of the leagues' central body.

"We are the conscience of the people and a pressure force to achieve the goals of the revolution, discover corruption and denounce its perpetrators - something the current political leadership has yet to accomplish," he said.

He insisted that the group had "never advocated violence" and if certain members were involved "we are the first to condemn them".

In October, league members in the southern town of Tataouine clashed with a local union, resulting in the death of the union head, Lutfi Narguez. The autopsy said the cause of death was a heart attack brought on by the violence.

Members of the league also allegedly attacked the home of Kamel Eltayef, a businessman with ties to the old regime, who has since been working with the opposition.

One of the main targets of their ire, however, is a new political party called Nida Tunis or Tunisia's Call, led by Caid Beiji Essebsi, a veteran politician that ran the interim government until the elections.

Many figures associated with the previous regime have flocked to the party, prompting accusations that they seek to restore the old system.

A political meeting of the party on the resort island of Djerba was besieged by hundreds of alleged members of the leagues on December 23, according to party members.

In the face of what it describes as a lack of government concern, Nida Tunis has threatened to file a suit against the leagues with the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

The most serious incident involving the leagues, however, came early last month, when men described as being part of the leagues used clubs and stones to assault people during a march at the main union headquarters in Tunis.

The powerful union, which has emerged in recent months as a focus of opposition to the government, threatened to shut the country down with a general strike until a compromise deal was finally struck. Slahhedine Jourchi, an analyst of Islamic movements in Tunisia, warned that the leagues were "becoming a factor for instability". He pointed out that their job of "protecting the revolution" should be the business of the state.

The rise in violence and internal tensions in Tunisia couldn't come at a worse time. The situation outside its borders is deteriorating, with Al Qaeda newly active in the Sahara, partly fuelled by the weapons pouring out of Libya's civil war. In December, police found two militant training camps near the Algerian border, probably to prepare disaffected Tunisians to join the jihads in Mali or neighbouring Algeria.

"With the situation in Libya, the Algerian border and in northern Mali, the threat posed by armed groups is likely to increase," said Mr Jourchi said.

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