Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi warned in a speech on Wednesday that the country’s democratic path is “under threat,” as protests over social and economic issues continue in southern and central Tunisia.
Essebsi announced the deployment of army forces to protect vital state facilities and petroleum outlets, as the protests brought a halt to production at two foreign energy companies; Perenco and Canada-based Serinus Energy.
The president described the demonstrations and sit-ins, which were sparked in the southern Tataouine province and have lead to the blocking of roads and a halt of oil and phosphate production, as “unacceptable.”
Protesters have been holding a sit-in for several weeks in the Sahara Desert and threatened to block roads used by oil and gas companies unless they are provided with more employment opportunities and a share in the region's energy resources.
The president did, however, express his understanding of the youth’s calls for jobs and an end to marginalisation, urging officials to be patient and engage in dialogue.
He also stressed his commitment to democracy as well as ensuring the right to peaceful protests.
Essebsi described the Tunisian revolution in 2011 as a “blessed” one, adding that the freedoms gained through the revolution were not to be undermined.
Essebsi used the colloquial Tunisian dialect while giving his speech, which was delivered at the capital's Conference Palace instead of the Presidential Palace for the first time.
The president voiced his support for the government led by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed in light of demands that the cabinet be sacked.
He also slammed calls for dissolving the parliament and holding new parliamentary elections, as well as holding a referendum on his initiative for economic and administrative reconciliation with state officials from the government of ousted president Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Experts have interpreted his speech as indicating that he plans to refer the matter to parliament for discussion.
According to sources in the capital, the initiative may be amended.
Essebsi did not address in his speech the recent calls by his supporters to amend the constitution to grant more powers to the president.
He also addressed the recent sudden resignation of Tunisian election chief Chafiq Sarsar just months before the country is set to hold its first post-revolution municipal elections, slamming Sarsar for not consulting Essebsi ahead of announcing his resignation.