Protests spread across Tunisia amid growing economic hardship
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.”