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Tunisians Say Economy Is Eclipsed By Other Issues


This MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne with David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep on the Revolutionary Road, traveling through nations of the Arab Spring, from Carthage to Cairo.

Let's take one more look this morning at Tunisia. It does not have Libya's oil or Egypt's vast population. But it does have one thing of special interest. Analysts think Tunisia is the best test of whether an Islamist democracy can actually work. As we've heard in recent days, Tunisians are jostling over what kind of new rules they want to write for their society. Many of the decisions in the end will belong to an Islamist party that won last year's elections in Tunisia.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley looks at the role of that party, called Ennahda.


ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The call to prayer resounds across the twisting alleys of the Medina, the oldest part of Tunis. Tunisia is a Muslim country, but it has long been known for its tolerance. It has welcomed tourists and trade from Europe for centuries. But now, many secular Tunisians worry that those traditions are changing.

Jihene Bouhadra runs the newly remodeled El Ali Cultural Cafe in the Medina.

JIHENE BOUHADRA: Tunisians are very moderate. We are Muslim, yes. And we are open to other cultures. We are open to other minds. We are open to other religions. We have been always moderate. So we are surprised - today we are surprised to see such a people who are very closed-minded, I think.


BEARDSLEY: Bouhadra is talking about a new phenomenon in Tunisia, outspoken ultra-conservative Muslims known as Salafists, like this group that gathered recently in the city of Kairouan. Bands of Salafists pushing for the imposition of Islamic law have been roaming the country, forcing bars and restaurants that sell alcohol to close and threatening women who don't cover their heads with a veil. Until now, Tunisian women have enjoyed near equal status with men. Some fear that could change if the Salafists get their way.

Many Tunisians say Ennahda - the moderate Islamist party that now heads the government - has not cracked down sufficiently on the radicals. Faycal Nacer is a spokesman for the party.

FAYCAL NACER: (Through translator) The Salafists are not from Jupiter. They're Tunisians and they have the right to exist and express themselves. And if they're extreme it's because they're victims of the old dictatorship. So we're using dialogue to convince them to become part of the democratic and political process.

BEARDSLEY: Many secular Tunisians accuse Ennahda of double talk. They believe the so-called moderate Islamists are actually working with the extremists to make society more conservative. As the debate rages on over the role of Islam in the new Tunisia, the country's most glaring problem, the economy, doesn't seem to be getting any better.


BEARDSLEY: Hundreds of jobless university graduates protested recently in front of the main courthouse in downtown Tunis. Unemployment is officially at 18 percent. But analysts say it may actually be twice that number. And much of the country is mired in poverty.

Protestor Beshar Messaoud says the government is a huge disappointment.

BESHAR MESSAOUD: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: A year and a half after the revolution, things are exactly the same, he says. This government has brought no solutions to the problems that led to the revolution in the first place.

LOTFI BEN SASSI: People want to work, want a job. And they give them not a job, but God and religion. We are Muslim, we have Islam. We don't need Islam. We need jobs. We need development.

BEARDSLEY: That's political cartoonist Lotfi Ben Sassi. He says if the economy doesn't improve soon, the moderate Islamists will be out on their ears at the next election.


BEARDSLEY: A few days ago in La Marsa, a chic suburb of Tunis, residents faced off with a group of Salafists who wanted to close down an art show because it allegedly promoted homosexuality. The two sides yelled at each other on the sidewalk. Thirty-five-year-old Laila Turki watched the scene from a cafe. She said these fights won't get Tunisia anywhere.

LAILA TURKI: Of course I feel nervous about the economy, about tourists. I want people to come invest in Tunisia. And I want people to keep coming here. I want to see Americans, I want to see French. I want to see everybody coming here, you know?

BEARDSLEY: Turki says if Tunisia doesn't get its act together and improve its economy quickly, it will undermine its chances to build a functioning democracy.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.

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