Tunisia PM defends policies in face of unrest

AFP , Wednesday 27 Jan 2016

Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid addresses the parliament over the ongoing wave of social unrest in the capital Tunis January 27, 2016 (Photo: AFP)

Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid defended his government Wednesday before parliament, faced with unemployment and poverty at the root of the worst social unrest since the 2011 revolution.

"We have tried, as far as possible, to improve the situation," he told a special parliamentary session on last week's protests that led to clashes with security forces in which dozens of people were injured, mostly in disadvantaged central Tunisia.

"We could make people quieten down by telling them, 'We are going to create 1,000 jobs' ... but we want to tell the people the truth," he said.

"We've started to find solutions. We don't have solutions for everybody but we do have some solutions," the prime minister said, without giving specifics.

"The responsibility (to find solutions) lies not only with the government," said Essid, urging opposition parties and civil society to join forces with his administration to address people's demands.

But his appeal was spurned by critics in parliament who demanded "real solutions".

"We do not want a government that sells illusions and inspires despair," said Hassouna Nasfi, one of around two dozen lawmakers who recently quit President Beji Caid Essebsi's Nidaa Tounes party.

Others called for measures to tackle graft -- a major grievance of protesters.

"The revolution of dignity has become the revolution of corruption," said Hafedh Zouari of the Afek Tounes party.

A nationwide nightime curfew was imposed Friday after the protests, which started in the central town of Kasserine where an unemployed man died of electrocution during a January 16 protest over the lack of economic prospects in the region.

The unrest, the worst since the revolution five years ago that ousted longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, spread to several other towns and to Tunis where shops were burned and looted in one suburb.

The demonstrations have ebbed in recent days although a few were held on Monday.

While Tunisia is considered a rare success story of the 2011 regional uprisings known as the Arab Spring, the authorities have failed to resolve the problems of social exclusion and regional inequalities.

The economy barely grew last year and unemployment is above 15 percent. For young graduates, it is twice as bad.

Essid stressed he understands the frustrations but "has no magic wand" to solve a situation he said was inherited by his government.

Apart from the economic damage wrought by political instability in post-Ben Ali Tunisia, two attacks by ISIS group last year targeting foreigners killed 60 people, battering Tunisia's vital tourism industry.

The group was also behind a suicide bombing in Tunis in November that killed 12 presidential guards and prompted the authorities to declare a nationwide state of emergency that remains in place.

The recent social unrest echoes the public anger that erupted after the death of young fruit seller Mohammed Bouazizi in the central town of Sidi Bouzid in December 2011.

Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest at unemployment and police harassment, sparking the uprising that toppled Ben Ali -- whose rule was tainted by graft accusations -- and inspiring the Arab Spring revolts.

Faced with growing public discontent, Essid earlier this month replaced his foreign and interior ministers in the first reshuffle since taking office in late 2014.

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