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Tunisia's Larayedh takes office as protester buried

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Ali Larayedh became Tunisia's new Islamist premier on Thursday, taking over from his predecessor Hamadi Jebali and faced with the task of ending a political and economic crisis gripping the country.

Speaking at the swearing in ceremony at the prime minister's office, Larayedh said his cabinet would listen to "the concerns of the nation and the people."

Larayedh took office a day after his coalition received parliament's backing in a vote of confidence, and just hours after the funeral of a street vendor whose self-immolation served as a stark reminder of the problems facing the new government.

The former interior minister has already promised to resolve Tunisia's institutional crisis this year, by ensuring the adoption of a new constitution and organising elections, while creating the conditions for an economic recovery and restoring security.

Jebali, who failed to win his Ennahda party's approval for the technocrat administration he had proposed after last month's assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid, endorsed the team of his successor and fellow Islamist.

"Those who are hoping for the failure of the (new) government are hoping for the failure of the (democratic) experience" in Tunisia, Jebali said.

Earlier, mourners at the funeral of Adel Khazri, a 27-year-old street vendor who died on Wednesday after setting himself on fire in central Tunis, shouted slogans denouncing Larayedh's ruling Islamist party.

"Ennahda, get out!" they chanted during the funeral in the impoverished town of Souk Jemaa in northwestern Tunisia, which was attended by several hundred people, according to an AFP journalist.

Khazri, who supported his family by selling contraband cigarettes, had arrived in the capital a few months ago to look for work.

His death revived the haunting memory of Mohamed Bouazizi, another street vendor who burned himself to death in the central town of Sidi Bouzid in protest at his precarious living conditions.

Bouazizi's drastic action sparked the uprising that toppled ex-dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 and touched off the Arab Spring.

Larayedh's new cabinet, formed after weeks of fraught political negotiations and uncertainty triggered by the killing of Belaid, is an awkward alliance grouping Ennahda, two secular parties and independent technocrats.

Tunisian media on Thursday highlighted the daunting political, social and economic challenges the government faces.

La Presse, a French-language daily, said it had to pull Tunisia out of a "vicious circle" and must "relaunch investment to create jobs, with unemployment creating the instability in the country that is deterring investors."

Two years after Ben Ali's regime fell Tunisia's economy is still struggling.

Unemployment and poverty, driving factors behind the revolution, remain major sources of discontent in towns like Sidi Bouzid and Souk Jemaa, whose residents complain bitterly that they have been abandonned by the ruling elite.

"It was our difficult living conditions that prompted my son's actions. He couldn't bear it any longer," Khazri's mother told AFP.

Ahmed Khazri Bouzidi, another relative of the street vendor, accused the ruling Islamist party, which came to power after its sweeping election victory in October 2011, of having betrayed their hopes of a better life.

"Ennahda came and performed its election show, then they forgot about this region. All the young people here are unemployed; Adel is just one example," he said.

Such discontent has led to a growing number of strikes and protests in marginalised regions of Tunisia over the past year, which often turn violent.

In a brief interview with AFP on Wednesday, Larayedh acknowledged that "social violence fed by politics", along with "terrorism", was one of the main threats facing the country.

In addition to sometimes severe economic hardship, and the political turmoil caused by the killing of Belaid, an outspoken critic of the Islamists, a wave of violence blamed on hardline Salafists has rocked Tunisia in the past two years.

The authorities have accused the radical Islamists of Belaid's murder and made a number of arrests, but the suspected killer remains at large.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130314/tunisias-larayedh-takes-office-protester-buried-0