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Tunisia Protesters Call for Change on Ben Ali Exile Anniversary

Thousands of Tunisians protested against the Islamist-led government today in a show of force spotlighting the tensions that remain two years after the nation’s autocratic president went into exile.

More than 7,000 people, representing a broad spectrum of Tunisia’s secularist political groups, chanted in front of the Interior Ministry, calling for the fall of the government led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party. Nearby, a smaller group of Ennahda supporters gathered in a counter-rally also celebrating the second anniversary of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s flight into exile.

Against a backdrop of the country’s red and white flag, the secularists chanted “Ennahda, leave,” and “the government is celebrating while the country is burning,” their calls echoing on the same main street on which tens of thousands had gathered in 2011 calling for Ben Ali’s ouster.

“We are here once again to protest, not celebrate,” said Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, a leading member of Jumhuri party. “The youths who started the revolution have not tasted its fruit of employment and development.”

The dueling rallies came as the government signed a “social contract” with Tunisia’s Industry, Trade and Handicrafts Union in a bid to appease workers demanding greater economic opportunities and jobs.

The protests that led to Ben Ali’s toppling from power and subsequent exile in Saudi Arabia triggered a wave of similar uprisings across the Arab world. New governments are contending with the weight of stagnant economies and populations angered by what they maintain are few tangible gains.

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Ennahda’s critics argue the Islamist group has failed to deliver on any of its promises of social justice since being elected. Compounding the nation’s challenges is a struggle with ultraconservative Salafis pushing for a greater role for Islamic law in a country that has long prided itself on its secular traditions and women’s rights.

Party officials argue the country’s development is being undermined by supporters of Ben Ali who they say work from within the Nidaa Tunis party.

“We are the true sons of the revolution,” Amer Larayedh, a senior Ennahda member, told supporters in the capital. “We will work against the former party members who try to circumvent the revolution.”

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