SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia, (AFP) — Protesters on Monday hurled rocks at Tunisia’s President Moncef Marzouki and parliamentary speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar in Sidi Bouzid, cradle of the revolution that erupted exactly two years ago.
The incident began after a speech by Marzouki and as Ben Jaafar was about to address the crowd in the poor Tunisian town, where muted celebrations are taking place to mark the anniversary of the uprising.
Tunisia’s marginalised interior has witnessed frequent outbreaks of social unrest amid bitter frustration at the revolution’s failure to bring material benefits.
The security forces swiftly evacuated the two men to the prefecture, or regional government headquarters, an AFP journalist reported.
The protesters invaded the square where the speeches were taking place, shouting “the people want the fall of the government.”
The police held back, after violent clashes in Tunisia in recent few months, often following attempts by the security forces to disperse protesters angry over the government’s failure to improve living conditions.
When the president took to the podium on Monday, many in the crowd of around 5,000 started shouting “Get out! Get out!” — one of the rallying cries of the revolution that toppled the regime of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Marzouki promised economic progress within six months to the people of Sidi Bouzid, with poverty and unemployment key factors behind the revolt that began there on December 17, 2010, after a street vendor set himself on fire to protest against police harassment.
Tunisia’s economic recovery, after last year’s recession, has been hampered by persistent insecurity and the crisis in Europe, with unemployment pegged at around 18 percent, fuelling the anger and frustration of many young Tunisians.
Late last month, around 300 people were wounded in five straight days of clashes between police and protesters in the town of Siliana, southwest of Tunis, where a strike swiftly degenerated into violence.
The president, a secular, centre-left ally of the Islamist party Ennahda, which heads Tunisia’s ruling coalition, stressed that the government did not have a “magic wand” to fix the country’s problems, and urged patience.
“The government does not have a magic wand to change things… It will take time to mend what we have inherited from 50 years of dictatorship,” said the president, who was jeered by the crowd.
“I understand this legitimate anger. But the government has diagnosed the problem. In six months, a stable government will be in place and will provide the remedy to heal the country’s problems,” he added.
“For the first time, we have a government which is not stealing from the people.”
Marzouki had been heckled earlier in the morning, when he laid a wreath of flowers at the grave of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young fruit and vegetable seller whose act of desperation touched off the Arab Spring.
“You came here a year ago and you promised that things would change in six months, but nothing has changed!” one protester shouted.
“We don’t want you here,” cried another.
The Islamist-led government has struggled to meet the expectations of many ordinary Tunisians, with clashes and strikes, as well as attacks by Islamists, multiplying across the country in the run-up to Monday’s celebrations.
Tunisia’s radical Islamists also gathered outside the prefecture in Sidi Bouzid on Monday, with members of the Hizb Ettahrir party waving the black flag of the hardline Salafist movement.
The Salafists have been implicated in numerous acts of violence since the revolution, including against Sufi shrines and art galleries and an attack in September on the US embassy in Tunis that left four people dead.
Since last week, the authorities have been hunting an armed group of suspected Islamists in the Kasserine region, next to Sidi Bouzid, who killed a policeman near the Algerian border.
The country has also been plunged into a political impasse over the drafting of a new constitution, which has been delayed by disagreement among lawmakers over whether the political system should be presidential or parliamentary.