SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia (Reuters) - Smoke billowed from a wrecked police station in Tunisia’s Sidi Bouzid Friday after protesters angry that their election candidates were disqualified rampaged through the town that was the cradle of the “Arab Spring” revolt.
The only sign of any security presence were a few soldiers at the top of the street leading into the town centre, but they were making no effort to restore order, leaving several hundred protesters in control.
The rioting appeared to stem from widespread sentiment in Tunisia’s provinces that while the revolution in January brought democracy, it has so far failed to deliver the jobs and better housing many people had hoped for.
Flames and a thick plume of smoke were coming out of the office of the municipal police after rioters earlier set fire to it, and the streets were littered with burning rubbish.
Sidi Bouzid was the town where, 11 months ago, a young vegetable seller called Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself in an act of protest at poverty and official repression.
His suicide unleashed protests which swelled and forced autocratic president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee.
This in turn inspired uprisings in Egypt and Libya that forced out entrenched leaders, and protests which have convulsed Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.
At the root of Sidi Bouzid’s protests during Tunisia’s revolution was the fact that residents feel marginalised and ignored by the ruling elite, 280 km to the northwest in the more prosperous capital.
Even with a new administration now in power in Tunis, those same issues appeared to have sparked the latest violence.
Officials with the independent commission overseeing an election for a new assembly ruled that candidates in several districts with the Popular List party would be disqualified because of alleged campaign violations.
The party, headed by London-based businessman Hachmi Hamdi, had a strong following in Sidi Bouzid. It ran a populist campaign that was heavily promoted by a television station which Hamdi owns.
Thursday night, after the disqualification was announced, rioters set fire to the mayor’s office and other buildings.
The violence resumed Friday morning, when soldiers fired in the air to stop a crowd attacking the office of the regional governor, witnesses told Reuters. The Interior Ministry imposed a night-time curfew that comes into force from Friday evening.
Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda party that won the election, appealed for calm in Sidi Bouzid.
“Ennahda calls on Tunisians to pull together, for dialogue and the rejection of violence ... Sidi Bouzid will be given priority in our program of development,” he said.
He also said he suspected that people loyal to ousted President Ben Ali’s now-banned RCD party were behind the clashes.
Many Tunisians suspect Ben Ali loyalists of trying to sabotage their revolution, and Hamdi said publicly before Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia that he backed him.
Even with some of its candidates disqualified, the Popular List came fourth in the election, beating more established parties and surprising observers.
Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by