Ammar Garsalla is unlikely to achieve the fame of Mohammad Bu Azizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation sparked the protests that led to the Arab Spring.

Garsalla, a 48-year-old father of three from the western town of Gafsa, died on January 9 in a hospital near Tunis after setting himself on fire to draw attention to his joblessness: the first Tunisian to die in this way since the revolution that overthrew president Zine Al Abidine Bin Ali a year ago.

Garsalla’s dramatic gesture reminded Tunisians that there is no easy way to reduce the chronic unemployment that blights some regions of the country and which the new Islamist-led government is sworn to tackle.

The country’s new interim president, Munsif Al Marzouqi of the centre-left Congress for the Republic party, has taken to donning a traditional cape as a statement of national and cultural identity and as a reminder that his roots are in the poorer south, not among the professionals of cosmopolitan Tunis.

Thus attired, he visited neighbouring Libya earlier this month, amid hopes that a reviving economy there could generate tens of thousands of jobs for Tunisians. But some analysts reckon that Tunisia’s unemployment rate, now around 16 per cent, will rise to 19 per cent by the end of this year. Among the young and educated in provincial towns such as Gafsa the figure is higher.

To break a vicious circle in which persistent unrest discourages fresh investment, Al Marzouqi has appealed for a “truce” of six months in which low-paid or jobless workers would stop their wildcat strikes and desist from mounting roadblocks to air their grievances.

Investors are also being put off by Tunisia’s fraught politics. The interim Prime Minister, Hamadi Jebali of Al Nahda, the Islamist party that won October’s general election in a landslide, boldly appointed senior party figures to head the interior and justice ministries, but may have been too bold in announcing new directors for state television, radio and other state-controlled media.

Hundreds of journalists gathered to protest that many of those appointed once worked with Bin Ali’s regime in enforcing a deadening official discourse. Al Nahda politicians for their part accuse parts of the media of distorted reporting and scaremongering.

One determinedly articulate block of public opinion, echoed by some of the press, is reluctant to accept Al Nahda’s electoral victory. It is also spooked by the increasing visibility of Salafists.

Lecturers were dismayed when the humanities faculty of Tunis’s Manouba University was closed down by Salafist protesters wanting women students to be allowed to wear the niqab, the full face-veil, in class. Riot police were dispatched on to the campus to end the sit-in without violence, signalling that the government will not be held to ransom by such groups.

Jebali has pledged to focus on making regions such as Gafsa less wretched. But secular-minded liberals are nervous.

Al Nahda displayed its ideology during a visit by Esmail Haniya, a leader of Hamas. At a rally of Al Nahda party faithful, Jebali stood approvingly beside a young French woman convert who, in stumbling Arabic, declared her adherence to Islam.

The human-rights minister and government spokesman, Samir Dilou, another Al Nahda man, helped get her wording right, to rapturous applause from the audience. Gafsa residents may have wondered how this would help alleviate poverty in their region.

–The Economist