FRESH protests over unemployment and poverty in central Tunisia on Thursday raised fears of growing social unrest five years after the country’s revolution was ignited by similar grievances.
The discontent spread to several towns in central Tunisia, with demonstrators taking to the streets. Protests and clashes with security forces started in Kasserine following the death on Saturday of an unemployed man who was electrocuted atop a power pole near the governor’s office. Ridha Yahyaoui, 28, was protesting after his name was removed from a list of hires for coveted public sector jobs.
‘It’s as if we were back in 2010-2011,’ Al-Shuruk newspaper wrote, referring to the revolution that overthrew dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The uprising was sparked by the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in nearby Sidi Bouzid, in protest at unemployment and police harassment in December 2010 and died a month later.
In the face of this week’s burgeoning unrest, Prime Minister Habib Essid cut short a European tour to return home on Thursday. Essid is to chair an emergency cabinet meeting on Saturday and give a news conference, his office said in a statement.
Despite the success of Tunisia’s political transition in the past five years, the authorities have failed to resolve the problems of social exclusion and regional disparities.
Tensions remain high in Kasserine, where security forces have used tear gas and water cannon against crowds of hundreds of demonstrators, and the protests have since Tuesday spread to nearby towns. As on the previous days, protesters in Kasserine on Thursday set up roadblocks with burning tyres and pelted security forces with stones, an AFP correspondent said.
A hospital source said 240 civilians and 74 policemen have been injured in the three days of clashes in Kasserine, while a security official said that police have been instructed to use ‘maximum restraint’. In Feriana, 30 kilometres (18 miles) away, a policeman was killed on Wednesday during an operation to disperse demonstrators, the interior ministry said.
A security source said that he died when his vehicle was overturned. On Thursday, a crowd of more than 1,000 gathered outside the governor’s office in Kasserine demanding information on an announcement the previous day of plans to create 5,000 jobs.
The finance ministry later clarified that the government was offering to extend its social aid programme rather than to create new posts. ‘We’ve had enough of promises and being marginalised. We were the ones who led the revolution and we will not stay silent,’ said protester Marwa Zorgui.
Another young demonstrator was persuaded by friends at the last minute not to leap to his death from the rooftop of the governorate building. As the protests spread, protesters on Thursday cut off roads in Sidi Bouzid and clashed with police, while similar demonstrations were reported in the central towns of Jendouba, Gafsa and Kebili.
President Beji Caid Essebsi has acknowledged his government had ‘inherited a very difficult situation’ with ‘700,000 unemployed and 250,000 of them young people who have degrees’. Tunisia’s economy has been hard hit by political instability combined with jihadist attacks that have hobbled its vital tourism sector.
‘Unemployment is the key problem which we must confront and one of the priorities of the government,’ Essid said Thursday, in a speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. But ‘we do not have a magic wand to end it in a short period of time’, the prime minister said before flying back home.
‘We have launched important programmes,’ he said, stressing the need for improved professional training. But the head of a Tunisian non-governmental organisation said the government had been slow to respond even though the brewing unrest was predictable. We’ve been warning that the social situation was explosive,’ said Abderrahman Hedhili of the Tunisian Forum For Economic and Social Rights. And Hamza Meddeb, a researcher with the Carnegie Middle East Centre, said that the people’s ‘patience is running out’.
On Wednesday, Tunisian police had fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse hundreds of job-seeking demonstrators in the impoverished town of Kasserine, in a second day of protests after the death of an unemployed man. The demonstrators had gathered outside the local government offices demanding a solution to the region’s dire unemployment before heading towards the town centre, as small groups set up roadblocks with burning tyres.
Witnesses said police used tear gas and water cannon and fired warning shots in the air as they came under attack from stone-throwers. Regional health authority chief Abdelghani Chaabani said eight police were injured in Kasserine as well as another 11 in nearby Thala, a day after clashes on Tuesday in which 20 protesters and three police were lightly hurt.
It comes only days after the fifth anniversary of the revolution sparked by the death of a young university graduate who set himself on fire to protest at police harassment and unemployment in the nearby town of Sidi Bouzid.
Wednesday’s clashes in Kasserine took place despite a night-time curfew imposed only the day before in the town of around 80,000 inhabitants. Tensions have run high in Kasserine since Saturday, when an unemployed man, Ridha Yahyaoui, 28, climbed atop a power pole near the governor’s office and was electrocuted. He was protesting after his name was removed from a list of hires for public sector jobs. A provincial official has been sacked following Yahyaoui’s death.
Late on Wednesday, government spokesman Khaled Chouket announced a series of measures for Kasserine, including the creation of 5,000 new jobs and allocation of 135 million dinars (60 million euros) to build 1,000 social homes. Tunisia, which has been plagued by high unemployment and poverty, has struggled to revive its economy since the 2011 revolution that toppled veteran president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Unemployment now stands at more than 15 per cent and 32 per cent among holders of university degrees, and Kasserine is one of the poorest regions of the North African country. Several rallies were held in other towns to support Kasserine and demand jobs and development. Protestors stormed the sub-prefecture in the central town of Regueb while the facade of a customs guard post in El Hidra, Kasserine governorate, was burned and a security forces vehicle torched, interior ministry spokesman Walid Louguini said.
Nearly 150 people demonstrated in Tunis and rallies were organised in Sousse and the town of El Fahs, southwest of Tunis, according to local media. In December 2010, demonstrations broke out in Sidi Bouzid, near Kasserine in central Tunisia, after a fruit-seller set himself alight to protest harassment and unemployment. Violent protests spread across the country, building into a massive popular movement that eventually forced Ben Ali to step down on January 14, 2011, before it spread to other North African countries.