* Protests starting to close oil, gasfields
* Government sends in army to protect assets
* Southern regions feel left behind by revolution
By Zoubhir Souissi
KAMOUR, Tunisia, May 15 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.
Rights groups have warned that this could lead to violence
in the south, an area of unrest where many people feel abandoned
by the government. The army has not yet arrived at the camp but
the flags promise 'no surrender'.
"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
"We are ready to talk, but we won't give up until our region
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
marginalized 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 Islamist 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 over jobs disrupted gas
production for nine months.
ENI says the protests have not affected its production. But
OMV has removed 700 non-essential staff and contractors as a
precaution. Perenco halted production at its Targa and Baguel
fields, while protests closed Canada-based Serinus Energy's
Chouech Essaida field.
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.
At Kamour, a brigade of National Guard troops keeps watch on
the protests at the camp which is about 5 km from a gas
pipeline. There was no sign of the army but an army spokesman
said on Thursday the military were coordinating with the
interior ministry to carry out the president's instructions.
"Cutting off routes and halting energy production is a
crime," Energy Minister Hela Chikhrouhou said. "It will not be
tolerated any more because it is destroying the economy."
Sending the army into a region that has faced unrest over
jobs and lack of investment almost every year since the 2011
revolution, carries risk.
Even before then, Gafsa, the southwestern region at the
heart of phosphate production, was seething with anti-government
sentiment. In the town of Redeyaf a statue pays homage to a
young man killed in 2008 rioting against Ben Ali's rule.
In many southern and central towns, agriculture is the main
source of income. Near the Algerian and Libyan borders, fuel
smuggling is also rife and opportunities scarce. Unemployment is
around 15 percent nationwide, but almost double that in rural
"I am an information technician graduate, but I've been
unemployed for more than 5 years. It is not normal that we see
nothing of the riches coming out of our region," said Nejib
Daifallah, 30, one of the protesters in Tatatouine.
When Chahed visited Tatatouine last month to negotiate with
protesters, he was greeted by crowds chanting "Get Out". They
refused offers of infrastructure development and around 900 jobs
including some in oil, environment or part of the government's
"Dignity" programme with the private sector.
Instead, they demanded at least 1,500 positions with oil
companies and nearly $50 million in local investment.
Essebsi's decision to send in the army has had mixed
"This is not a foreign army that will be protecting our
natural resources, it's the national army protecting our
revolution," said Rached Ghannouchi , leader of the Islamist
Ennahda party which is in a coalition with the ruling secular
Nidaa Tounes party founded by Essebsi.
But opposition parties said it was a provocative step that
would increase social tensions with young men simply seeking a
better life. Rights groups said there was a risk of violence.
"Instead of calming the situation and looking for solutions
for the social issues and unemployment, this will just increase
tensions," opposition leader Adnen Monsar said. "You are sending
in the army against peaceful protesters."
($1 = 2.4136 Tunisian dinars)
(Reporting by Tarek Amara; writing by Patrick Markey; editing
by Anna Willard)