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Essebsi faces headache as protests over gas proceeds hot up

KAMOUR (Tunisia)

In Tatatouine province in Tunisia’s southern Sahara, around 1,000 protesters living in a makeshift campsite are threatening to blockade roads used by foreign companies to access nearby gas and oilfields.

They want a larger slice of the gas proceeds to go towards the development of Tatatouine, an area of high poverty and unemployment. Flags and banners hanging in the desert heat ask “Where is our energy wealth?”.

Their weeks-long protest has disrupted production as some companies close fields as a precaution. Last week, President Beji Caid Essebsi for the first time ordered the army to protect strategic phosphate mines and gasfields operated by companies including Italy’s ENI and Austria’s OMV.

“We paid no attention to the president’s speech. We will continue our peaceful protest for our rights, that is development, work and our share in energy riches,” said Tarek Haddad, one of the protest leaders at the Kamour camp in Tatatouine.

Six years after its revolution ended Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s autocratic rule, Tunisia is once again faced with the reality of how far its uprising has fallen short for many in the marginalised southern regions where the revolt first started.

Praised by western governments as a model for democratic transition, Tunisia has mostly failed to deliver the economic opportunities to match its political success, leaving many youth with little hope.

The protests are another challenge for Prime Minister Youssef Chahed whose government is struggling to enact sensitive subsidy and public spending reforms demanded by the IMF and other lenders to help stabilise economic growth.

Tunisia is a small oil and gas player compared with neighbouring energy giants Libya and Algeria, Opec members and major suppliers to European markets. But its economy is just recovering from 2015 militant attacks on tourists.

Protests targeting energy production are not new. British gas company Petrofac last year threatened to leave Tunisia and end its investment after protests disrupted gas production for nine months.

The government says protests around phosphate mines, another key earner, caused losses of around $2 billion since 2011. But they ended after negotiations, allowing state production to rise the highest levels since 2010.