For youth in Tunisia mining region, it’s ‘mine or die’

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A worker gestures at a phosphate production plant in Kef Eddour, in the Metlaoui mining region, one of the main mining sites in central Tunisia, after workers restarted production after a month-long strike, on March 8, 2018. (AFP)
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Unemployed Tunisians sit at a phosphate production plant in Kef Eddour. (AFP)
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A view of the Metlaoui phosphate production plant on March 8, 2018, in the Metlaoui mining region. (AFP)
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Mothers of unemployed Tunisian men sit at a phosphate production plant in Kef Eddour, in the Metlaoui mining region. (AFP)
Updated 20 March 2018
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For youth in Tunisia mining region, it’s ‘mine or die’

METLAOUI: Dozens of unemployed youths camp out around phosphate mines in central Tunisia, demanding jobs as part of a wave of protests aimed at focusing attention on alleged state neglect.
The surge in anger is the latest in the North African nation’s mining region, where one of the country’s highest unemployment rates and a stark lack of infrastructure have fueled regular unrest.
The most recent confrontations broke out at the end of January, with demonstrators frustrated over hiring practices blocking work for six weeks.
Among the grey dunes of phosphate at the Kef Eddour quarry near the town of Metlaoui, 10 women and about 50 young men — sons and grandsons of miners — eat and sleep in a few prefabricated cabins.
“The phosphate company is the only thing here, we have no development, no jobs,” said Ali Ben Msalah, 25, who has been unemployed since finishing high school.
“For us, the solution is either emigration, death or prison.”
Next to him, Souad Smadah, 60, the daughter and wife of miners, nods as she warms couscous and tea over a fire for the young protesters.
She is angry that none of her five sons have managed to find work at the phosphate mines, accusing businessmen and trade unions of prioritising their relatives when hiring.
Smadah’s eldest earns 300 dinars ($125 or 100 euros) a month in a bakery, almost three-times less than a starting salary at the mine.

'Little Paris'

Metlaoui is rich in phosphate, a highly sought after ore used to make fertilizer of which Tunisia is the world’s fourth largest producer.
Boasting a swimming pool, cinema and tennis courts, it was once nicknamed “Little Paris.”
Today, however, the town’s jobless youth loiter along cratered roads, their teeth yellowed from polluted water.
The Gafsa Phosphate Company (CPG), a state monopoly, has long been the main source of jobs and income for the region.
Decades of corrupt or absent authorities sparked mass protests around the mines in 2008 that were brutally repressed by dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
His fall in a 2011 uprising which sparked the Arab Spring upheavals sparked hope of change.
But there has been no sign of improvement and a combination of lack of investment, skilled workers and unrest has even seen output nosedive.
“Since the revolution, we can no longer produce the desired tonnage,” said CPG’s general secretary, Ali Khmili.
The company, which used to produce up to 8 million tons a year, barely extracted 4.2 million last year.
The most recent disruption to the mine’s work began in January after the series of demonstrations and riots, fueled by price and tax increases and persistent unemployment, broke out in the region and across Tunisia.
Adding to the tensions are looming municipal elections scheduled for May, with legislative and presidential elections set for 2019.
In Gafsa, the heightening of political tensions has complicated negotiations with the protesters, paralysing production earlier this year.
The halt in work was “essentially linked to a lack of trust” between residents and the government, according to Rabeh Ahmadi, an activist with the Tunisian Forum of Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), an NGO specializing in social issues.
The government eventually demanded legal action and suspended some 1,700 hires in progress in an attempt to quell the unrest.

Unhappy residents

Mining slowly resumed this month and ministers were dispatched to the region last week. But residents unhappy with solutions proposed by the government have continued to disrupt production.
They say it is the only way to force those in power to pay attention to them, as phosphate is crucial to reaching the government’s target of three percent growth
CPG, which is running at a deficit largely because of recurring unrest, has not contributed to the state budget since 2011.
And some at the company warn that by targeting the phosphate output the demonstrators could end up just hurting their region even more.
“The protesters’ claims are legitimate, there is a total absence of the state in this area,” said Rafiq Smida, an CPG engineer and advocate for the phosphate industry.
“But if work there is blocked, 32,000 jobs are at risk.”


Speculation mounts over Abdullah Gul’s election ambitions

Former Turkish President Abdullah Gul, left, is seen with Saadet Party leader Temel Karamollaoglu during a ceremony in Istanbul on Tuesday. (Reuters)
Updated 6 min 30 sec ago
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Speculation mounts over Abdullah Gul’s election ambitions

  • Gul and Erdogan have mostly followed the same political paths and a religiously conservative ideology
  • A split between the two men recently erupted when Gul criticized the controversial state of emergency decree law

 ANKARA: Rumors are rife in Turkey that former President Abdullah Gul could emerge as a possible contender against his once close political ally President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the June elections.

Gul, who along with Erdogan was among the founders of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001, has met with opposition leaders amid speculation he could run as a presidential candidate for the main opposition alliance.

Erdogan called the snap election, which will select the president and Parliament members, last week, catching opposition parties off guard. 

Gul and Erdogan have mostly followed the same political paths and a religiously conservative ideology.

However, Gul, who served as Turkey’s president from 2007 to 2014, has increasingly criticized Erdogan’s handling of the aftermath of an attempted coup in 2016. 

A split between the two men recently erupted when Gul criticized the controversial state of emergency decree law that exempted civilians who fought against the coup attempt in 2016 from criminal liability. 

Slams Erdogan

He also openly slammed the repeated extension of the state of emergency in Turkey, which has been in place since the coup, and called for normalization in the country.

With his conciliatory approach to politics and leadership in the rapprochement process with Armenia and the Kurds in Turkey, Gul was widely respected by the international community as president.

Asked about speculation on Gul’s candidacy, Erdogan said on Tuesday: “I don’t have a problem with that.”

“Alliances with the sole motivation of hostility toward Erdogan are being formed,” he added. 

If nominated by the opposition camp, Gul is expected to announce a manifesto that promises a return to the parliamentary system by abolishing the executive presidential changes to the constitution approved by a controversial referendum last year. 

He is also said to be announcing a new constitutional draft and suggesting an alternative council of ministers focused on improving the Turkish economy.

The deadline to submit applications for the presidential candidacy is May 4.

Gul held talks with the leader of the Islamist Felicity Party (SP), Temel Karamollaoglu, on Wednesday and met former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Ankara a day earlier, according to Turkey’s pro-government daily Haber Turk.

Other opposition figures are also meeting to discuss alliances for the election on June 24. Karamollaoglu met Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Meral Aksener, who heads the right-wing nationalist Good Party (Iyi Parti).

Electoral opportunity

Kilicdaroglu has described the upcoming elections as an opportunity to salvage the country from what the opposition claims is Erdogan’s increasingly draconian rule. 

“Abdullah Gul’s name is not on the CHP agenda,” said Ozgur Ozel, parliamentary group leader of CHP. But the SP still insists on his candidacy. 

According to experts, for the other candidates to surpass Erdogan they will need the votes of all the other opposition parties and some of the AKP constituencies.

Polls show that Erdogan, who has dominated the top rungs of power in the country for more than 15 years, enjoys about 50 percent of voter support. 

“This means that a candidate would need to appeal to Turkish nationalists, Kurdish nationalists, Islamists and secularists in order to get more votes than Erdogan who has a much more solid base,” Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told Arab News. 

Gul appears to be the best alternative in this regard, experts said.

However, the decision by the newly founded Iyi Party on whether they would join other opposition parties to nominate Gul as the opposition block candidate would be critical. 

If Erdogan does not win the presidency in the first round of voting — by securing at least 50 percent plus one vote — then a second round will be held within two weeks. 

If the race is between more than two candidates, Erdogan would win the presidency again, said Dr. Emre Erdogan, co-founder of an Istanbul-based research company, Infakto Research Workshop.

“Hence, the calculus of Gul’s move is simple: Exchanging mid-to-long-term uncertain gains, with certain short-term victories, namely being the next president of Turkey,” he told Arab News.

Nominating conservative Gul will cost the CHP some ultra-secular votes, but considering the discipline of its voters, the price will be minuscule and easily compensated by Kurdish voters who favor Gul, Dr. Emre Erdogan said.

“Among all alternative scenarios, only the nomination of Gul seems to be the one with the highest potential to influence the outcome,” he said.