Youth unemployment sparks Tunisian tinderbox

AFP, Tuesday 28 Dec 2010

Unemployment, poverty, and austerity measures have inflamed protests and riots

Tunisia riots

Days of rioting in Tunisia by mostly jobless and frustrated young people protesting violently against the government has exposed the crippling unemployment problem in the north African country.

Unrest has gripped the central Sidi Bouzid region since the attempted suicide on December 17 of a 26-year-old university graduate, who was forced to sell fruit and vegetables on the streets to make ends meet.

After police confiscated his produce because he did not have a proper permit, Mohammed Bouazizi doused himself in petrol and set himself alight, which left him in a serious condition with severe burns.

Thousands of people took to the streets on December 24, the worst day of rioting, where they burned the local headquarters of the national guard, who responded with gunshots that killed an 18-year-old protestor.

The protests spread to the capital Tunis on Monday, where several hundred people gathered in the city centre to demonstrate solidarity with the protestors in Sidi Bouzid.

The rally was called by several trade unions, including secondary school teachers, postal, social security, and health workers.

Protestors assembled in front of the headquarters of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) but were prevented from marching by police. The demonstration broke up after three hours of chanting slogans.

"The root of the problems is the high rate of unemployment for university graduates, the high price of raw materials and agriculture being the sole source of work," said the Tunisian League for the Defence of Human Rights.

Tensions heightened five days after Bouazizi's attempted suicide when another young man climbed up an electricity pylon and electrocuted himself on the cables, saying he was fed up with being unemployed.

"Unemployment is the immediate problem, with all that can follow," said Touhami Heni, the regional head of Tunisia's major union.

Tunisia's unemployment rate is officially 14 percent, but the percentage of graduates without work is about double that, prompting a warning from the International Monetary Fund.

While the government forecasts the economy to grow by 5.4 percent next year, from 4.1 percent this year, job creation is laggard and development uneven.

"The weakness of the development model has caused inequality between regions, as witnessed by the fact that 90 percent of (investment) projects are in coastal areas, and 10 percent in the interior," said opposition leader Rachid Khechana.

Khechana said the situation was aggravated by the migration of thousands of graduates from poorer interior regions to coastal cities in search of work.

For those that remain in places such as Sidi Bouzid, livestock and informal commerce are the main ways of scratching out a living.

While violent protests are rare in Tunisia, where the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally maintains a tight grip on dissent, unrest has boiled over in recent years over economic woes.

The mining region of Gafsa saw protests in 2008 over lay-offs and the high cost of living, while the southern town of Ben Gardane near the Libyan border was hit by protests last year when Tripoli imposed trade restrictions.

The government said the December 24 violence, in which two national guard members suffered serious injuries, was the result of opposition manipulation.

But in an acknowledgment of the plight of the region's young people, Development Minister Mohamed Nouri Jouini announced a new 15-million-dinar (7.5 million euros/10 million dollars) employment programme.

"Work is a legitimate right for every person, but there is no justification for violence," he said.

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