Tunisia faces rising wave of protests in phosphate-producing region
Four towns in Tunisia's main phosphate-producing region began a general strike on Wednesday to protest against unemployment, as figures showed industrial activity fell sharply in early 2015.
Hundreds of people took to the streets of Metlaoui, Om Lrayes, Mdhila and Redayef in the North African country's southern "mining basin", while public institutions and most shops there were closed, residents and officials said.
The southern protests are a major challenge to government efforts to revive the economy after Tunisia completed its transition to democracy following the 2011 uprising that ousted autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.
Tunisia's state-run Gafsa Phosphate had already suspended production after sit-in protests by unemployed youths demanding work halted deliveries at the start of the month. Phosphate exports are one of Tunisia's main hard currency earners.
"The strike in Redayef and other towns is to draw attention to the bad conditions in the region, the unemployment, despite the phosphate riches there," said union leader Ali Jdidi.
"People want jobs more than anything."
Prime Minister Habib Essid, who leads a coalition government between secular and Islamist parties, announced a package of development projects for the region on Friday, including roads and a hospital. But protesters said it was not enough.
Ammar Amroussia, a local leader from the opposition Popular Front party, said the measures were important, but not enough to reassure youths in the region who were seeking work.
Nearly one in three workers are unemployed in some parts of southern and central Tunisia, twice the national average of 15 percent, according to government figures.
Economic hardships were a trigger for the 2011 uprising, while protests in the southern mining region in 2008 marked a rare public demonstration against Ben Ali's rule.
Tunisia's shift to democracy has been hailed as a model for the region but many of its citizens remain concerned about jobs and living costs.
Figures on Wednesday from the state statistics institute showed economic growth slowed to 1.7 percent year-on-year in the first quarter as industrial activity tumbled by 3.7 percent.
Quarterly growth picked up slightly, to 2.4 percent from 2.3 percent in the final three months of 2014.
Tunisia is under pressure from international lenders to reduce public spending, including subsidies on basic foods and fuel, and cut the deficit to help economic growth. But social tensions make cost-cutting sensitive.
The government expects the budget deficit to narrow to 5 percent of gross domestic product in 2015 from 5.8 percent last year. It expects growth of 3 percent this year compared to 2.3 percent for the full-year 2014.