Tunisians Bolt Doors Even After New Constitution Passed

Samir Weslati has taken down the wooden door of his Tunisian home and fitted an iron replacement along with three locks, just to make sure no one can force their way in. Inside, he’s stockpiled food, diapers and milk.

“Gangs and thieves are trying to exploit the lack of security and government control,” said Weslati, a 40-year-old father-of-two who’s a professor at an institute in Beja, 100 kilometers (62 miles) west of Tunis. “I fear for my family.”

Street crime is exacerbating the security challenges facing Mehdi Jomaa, who became caretaker prime minister last month after Islamists and liberal secularists overcame differences to agree on a new constitution that protects religious freedoms and grants men and women equality. The two-year tussle saw political assassinations and the growing influence of al-Qaeda militants, unrest that the World Bank says is keeping economic growth well below potential.

“Tunisia has accomplished the toughest and hardest part of the transition to democracy,” said Khalil al-Anani, senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. “Nonetheless, the progress in regard to Tunisia’s first constitution after the 2011 uprising shouldn’t blind us from considering other challenges facing the country.”

‘Loss of Confidence’

The time taken to approve a new constitution led to “an increasing loss of confidence in the whole political class and more violence,” said Hichem Guerfali, director of Tunis-based market research company 3C Etudes, citing results of about 20 months of polls by his firm.

Those surveys illustrate the depth of public apprehension. A December poll showed about a third of Tunisians said they missed former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled after being ousted in 2011. Three-quarters of them cited worsening security as the cause of their nostalgia, with 62 percent identifying shrinking living standards and 6.4 percent unemployment.

The World Bank said this month the political and security challenges of last year are weighing on the economy, even as it predicted growth will rise to 3 percent this year from 2.6 percent in 2013. Exports and tourism declined or stagnated, while joblessness is 15.7 percent and inflation 5.8 percent.

According to the Tunisian National Institute of Statistics, in the five years before the revolution, average annual growth was about 4.5 percent, inflation stood near 4.1 percent and unemployment was 14.2 percent.

Favorable Reaction

Investors have reacted positively to the new constitution because it points to “some kind of reconciliation within the political process” that bodes well for stability, said William Jackson, emerging-markets economist at Capital Economics in London.

The yield on government bonds fell to the lowest in a year this week. The political compromise sets Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, apart from Egypt, Libya and Syria.

Violence, or the fear of it, has been good for Nabil Ghanmi, manager of N.G Multimedia, a Tunis-based technology company that sells surveillance cameras and alarms.

“Before the revolution, we were working with big institutions,” he said. “Now, 60 percent of our business is with normal people -- businessmen and the middle class.” His profit doubled since 2011, he said, declining to give figures.

Gun Battles

Tunisia is also confronting militant Islamist groups. Seven militants and a policeman died in a gun battle near Tunis on Feb. 4, the Interior Ministry told the state-run news agency, TAP. One of the men, named as Kamel Gadhgadhi by Mosaique FM radio, was linked to last year’s assassinations of liberal opposition leaders Chokri Beleid and Mohamed Brahmi, whose killings triggered the fall of two Islamist-led governments last year.

“Security is the primary concern of all Tunisians,” said Sofiane Ben Farhat, a Tunisian journalist who says he’s among the media and political figures whose lives are in danger. He said despite installing surveillance cameras in his house and hiring security guards, he was robbed in November. Then last weekend, he was beaten with sticks outside a hotel in the country’s northeast.

“My life has changed completely,” Ben Farhat said before the beating. “I can no longer go out with family and friends.”

The interim government “faces a heavy legacy,” said political analyst Yousef Weslati, who’s not related to the Beja professor. “They can’t do a lot since they don’t have a magic wand,” and their main task will be to guide Tunisia to national elections later this year, he said.

While Islam is the state religion, the new charter protects freedom of belief. In a major concession by Ennahdha, which led the government from November 2011 until January, Sharia law isn’t recognized as the main source of legislation.

For Samir Weslati, the constitution and new government are providing “a dose of oxygen that came at exactly the right moment.” Still he says, “I have a serious fear the worst is coming.”

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