Jobless protests stir growing unrest in Tunisia

Kaouther Larbi
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Demonstraters block the road with burning tires in the town of Siliana, northwest of Tunisia's capital Tunis, on January 21, 2016 in solidarity with Kasserine, following the death of an unemployed man there

Demonstraters block the road with burning tires in the town of Siliana, northwest of Tunisia's capital Tunis, on January 21, 2016 in solidarity with Kasserine, following the death of an unemployed man there (AFP Photo/Fawzi Dridi)

Kasserine (Tunisia) (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.

The discontent spread to several towns in central Tunisia, with demonstrators taking to the streets.

Protests and clashes with security forces started in Kasserine following 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 nearby Sidi Bouzid, 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.

- 'Enough of promises' -

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.

As on the previous days, protesters in Kasserine on Thursday set up roadblocks with burning tyres and pelted security forces with stones, an AFP correspondent said.

A hospital source said 240 civilians and 74 policemen have been injured in the three days of clashes in Kasserine, while a security official told AFP that police have been instructed to use "maximum restraint".

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 an announcement the previous day of plans to create 5,000 jobs.

The finance ministry later clarified that the government was offering to extend its social aid programme rather than to create new posts.

"We've had enough of promises and being marginalised. We were the ones who led the revolution and we will not stay silent," said protester Marwa Zorgui.

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

- No 'magic wand' -

As the protests spread, protesters Thursday cut off roads in Sidi Bouzid and clashed with police, while similar demonstrations were reported in the central towns of Jendouba, Gafsa and Kebili.

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.

And Hamza Meddeb, a researcher with the Carnegie Middle East Center, said that the people's "patience is running out".