Protests spread across Tunisia amid growing economic hardship

Tightened belt. A Tunisian man walks in the northern town of Tebourba following a night of protests in Tunisia over price hikes and austerity measures, on January 11. (AFP)

2018/01/14 Issue: 139 Page: 2

The Arab Weekly
Lamine Ghanmi

Tunis- Violent protests escalated across Tunisia with au­thorities arresting hun­dreds accused of prop­erty destruction, looting and theft.

The protests, a response to a budget law that will increase the price of basic goods such as pet­rol and phone cards, are the lat­est setback for a country battling chronic unemployment, a sluggish economy and the threat of jihadists across its borders.

The unrest began January 7 in the small town of Tebourba and spread to Tunis and other towns. On Janu­ary 9, hundreds of peaceful protest­ers, including several left-wing pol­iticians, took to Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis.

The demonstrations often turned violent at night, prompting police to fire rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowds. One protester was killed January 8 during clashes be­tween police and demonstrators in Tebourba.

Protests spread to the coastal re­gion, outside the usual areas of un­rest in the interior. It was there that unrest sparked protests that seven years ago unseated long-time ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and trig­gered the “Arab spring” uprisings.

While opposition leaders encour­aged peaceful protests, government officials stressed that violence and looting would not be tolerated.

“What happened is violence that we cannot accept,” Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed told resi­dents in El Batan on January 9. “The state will remain steadfast.”

Interior Ministry spokesman Khelifa Chibani said in a statement that “terrorist elements” had infil­trated protests to riot, loot and de­stroy property.

“We have information that ter­rorist elements are seeking to take advantage of the chaos to carry out terrorist operations or smuggle weapons or infiltrate the protests to stage attacks,” said Chibani. He pointed out that nearly 800 people, including 16 “Islamist extremists,” had been arrested.

Three local leaders of the leftist Popular Front were arrested in the southern province of Gafsa for sus­pected involvement in setting fire to a public building. Public proper­ty was vandalised in several cities, noted Chibani. In Thala, in western Kasserine, protesters set the po­lice headquarters on fire. Two sus­pected extremists were arrested for helping storm a police station in the northern town of Nefza.

In a number of cities outside Tunis, the army had to intervene to support police and the Tunisian Na­tional Guard.

Chahed, who has led an anti-graft campaign in which prominent fig­ures have been arrested, said cor­rupt networks could be benefiting from the unrest.

“The acts of vandalism serve the interests of corrupt networks to weaken the state,” Chahed said.

Analysts said traffickers and extremists have an interest in stok­ing unrest to distract security forces and be able to operate freely.

Hamma Hammami, the leader of the left-wing Popular Front party, said the party continued “to be on the side of the peo­ple and will step up the peaceful protests until (the government scraps) the budget law’s meas­ures that target the living condi­tions of the people and amplify the suffering of Tunisians.”

Leaders of the Islamist Ennahda party and their secularist coalition allies of Nidaa Tounes challenged the opposition to “show their forces on the streets.”

While many Tunisians voiced concern about the country’s econ­omy, politicians were focused on the municipal elections in May. The polls, the first in seven years, are likely to gauge the political climate for presidential elections in 2019.

The government acknowledged the pains caused by the price hikes but said they were necessary to trim the country’s growing budget deficit, which jumped from 2.6% in 2010 to 6% in 2017.

Ennahda, to curry favour with voters, urged the government to in­crease the monthly minimum wage from $117 to $144, as well as provide financial assistance to families liv­ing under the poverty line. The pro­posals are in line with those made by the Tunisian General Labour Union.

Lassaad Jouhri, a senior Ennahda official, said the protests are likely to die down within two weeks but others were less optimistic.

Leftist parliament member Ad­nane Hajji said: “2018 will be a bloody year. You have to ready yourself for that.”

Lamine Ghanmi is a veteran Reuters journalist. He has covered North Africa for decades and is based in Tunis.

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