Tunisia PM urges patience after social unrest

AFP , Saturday 23 Jan 2016

Tunisia PM
Tunisia's Prime Minister Habib Essid poses with ministers prior to preside over an extraordinary Cabinet meeting in Carthage, outside Tunis, Saturday Jan. 23, 2016. (Photo: AP)

Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid pleaded Saturday for people to be "patient" after a wave of protests against poverty and unemployment in the worst social unrest since the 2011 revolution.

He spoke after chairing an emergency cabinet meeting as authorities said a nighttime nationwide curfew would be indefinite.

The measure was imposed Friday after the spread of unrest from the central town of Kasserine, where an unemployed man died of electrocution during a protest, to the rest of the country.

Anger at the January 16 death of Ridha Yahyaoui after he climbed a power pole also hit the capital where shops were burnt and looted in one suburb.

It was the worst social unrest since the revolution five years ago that ousted longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Tunisia "is in danger despite the positive things which we have accomplished, particularly the transition toward democracy", said Essid, urging people to "understand that there are difficulties".

"Solutions exist but some patience and optimism are needed," said Essid.

The premier, who met the defence and interior ministers before the cabinet meeting, did not announce any firm measures to tackle unemployment and corruption which have plagued the country.

On Friday he said he had "no magic wand" to solve unemployment which is more than 15 percent nationwide and 32 percent among university graduates.

In a televised address on Friday, President Beji Caid Essebsi expressed understanding for the frustration vented in impoverished regions of central Tunisia.

But he also warned against "ill-intentioned hands" exploiting the legitimate grievances of demonstrators.

Calm returned to Kasserine on Saturday morning after a day of clashes, but in the nearby town of Sidi Bouzid -- the cradle of the revolution -- teenagers set tyres alight, AFP journalists said.

"Security-wise, it has started to stabilise," interior ministry spokesman Walid Louguini told AFP.

Nevertheless authorities said the 8:00 pm to 5:00 am curfew would stay.

There have been 261 arrests over the unrest and 84 for curfew violations on Friday, the interior ministry said.

Analyst Selim Kharrat called the unrest "the most serious social crisis since 2011", and expressed disappointment at the cabinet's failure to announce solutions to resolve the situation.

The government "missed the opportunity to give a positive signal", he said.

The government "could have taken inexpensive measures" to battle corruption but has "a limited margin for manoeuvre", Kharrat said.

"The demonstrations are demanding not only jobs but also honest leaders," he added.

Saturday's cabinet session comes after Essid earlier this month replaced his foreign and interior ministers in the first reshuffle since Essebsi took office in late 2014.

The unrest echoed the public anger that erupted after the death of young fruit seller Mohammed Bouazizi in December 2011 in protest at unemployment and police harassment.

Bouazizi set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid, sparking the uprising that toppled Ben Ali -- whose rule was tainted by graft accusations -- and inspired the Arab Spring revolts.

Othman Yahyaoui on Friday said his electrocuted son was "a victim of corruption, marginalisation and unkept promises".

Mehrez, a brother, said impoverished youths were being driven towards "drug trafficking and terrorism", in reference to the thousands of young Tunisians who have joined militant oganisations such as the Islamic State (ISIS) group.

While Tunisia is considered a rare Arab Spring success story, the authorities have failed to resolve the problems of social exclusion and regional inequalities.

Groups including the Tunisian League for Human Rights and Oxfam on Friday urged the government "to adopt an economic model aimed at reducing regional disparities and social injustices".

Tunisia was also shaken last year by two attacks against its vital tourism industry that killed 60 people -- all but one foreign tourists -- and were claimed by ISIS.

It was also behind a suicide bombing in Tunis in November that killed 12 presidential guards.

After that attack, Tunisia imposed a state of emergency and in December decided to extend it by two months until February 21.

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