Jobless protests stir growing unrest in Tunisia

AFP , Thursday 21 Jan 2016

Tunisians shout slogans during an anti-government demonstration on January 20, 2016 on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis in solidarity with demonstrators demanding jobs in the central Tunisian city of Kasserine Authorities imposed a curfew on the impoverished city of Kasserine, where tensions have been high since January 16, 2016 when a young unemployed man suffered a fatal electric shock during a protest. (Photo: AFP)

Fresh protests over unemployment and poverty in central Tunisia on Thursday raised fears of growing social unrest five years after the country's revolution ignited by similar grievances.

Daily protests and clashes with security forces in the town of Kasserine have followed 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 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.

In Feriana, 30 kilometres (18 miles) away, a policeman was killed Wednesday during an operation to disperse demonstrators, the interior ministry said.

A security source told AFP 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 a government announcement the previous day of plans to create 5,000 jobs.

An AFP journalist said a young demonstrator was persuaded by friends at the last minute not to leap to his death from the rooftop of the building.

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.

"People have been waiting... but the government lacks vision, a programme."

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