Tunisian police use tear gas to break up street protests

Tunisian police use tear gas to break up street protests

Police in Tunisia fired tear gas to disperse protests after rioting erupted overnight on Saturday by crowds of angry youths in several cities including some districts of the capital Tunis and the coastal city of Sousse.

Demonstrators blocked roads with burning tyres, scuffled with police and attempted to vandalise banks and shops, according to a spokesman of the interior ministry quoted by the official news agency. The explosion of fury was sparked by the alleged mistreatment of a shepherd by a policeman in the northern town of Siliana.

The protests in at least six Tunisian cities come as the country marks the tenth anniversary of the popular revolution that ousted dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, ushering in a new democratic era and sparking off a string of similar uprisings across the Arab world. Most of these revolts ultimately failed and Tunisia remains the only country in the region considered to have had a successful democratic transition.

But the country’s political transformation has not been matched by economic progress to meet the aspirations of its youths who faced in 2020 soaring unemployment rates of 36.5 per cent, according to estimates by the International Labour Organization.

Social tensions have repeatedly boiled over into protests over the past decade and previous attempts by successive governments to impose austerity measures including subsidy cuts have sparked public anger.

Coronavirus has exacerbated an already dire economic situation with lockdowns forcing the permanent shuttering of thousands of companies and a rise in poverty levels.

The economy contracted in 2020 by 8 per cent, according to a November estimate by Fitch, the rating agency. Tourism revenues plunged as the pandemic kept European visitors away.

Years of sluggish economic growth has meant not enough jobs have been created and the government has been unable to tackle entrenched inequalities between coastal regions and the impoverished and long-neglected inland provinces. 

Weak governments underpinned by fractious alliances of political parties have found it difficult to resist pressures from trade unions to increase civil service salaries.

The increased hardship faced by Tunisians as a result of poor public services, soaring prices and high unemployment has undermined trust in politicians of all hues, making it even harder for governments to secure public buy-in for economic measures that involve austerity, analysts say.

Tunisia is expected to resort to the IMF again in 2021 for a loan to help shore up its finances as it deals with the devastating impact of the pandemic.

Hichem Mechichi, prime minister, signalled recently after a meeting with the IMF that the government was about to launch a package of economic reforms, but analysts say this is likely to include measures that previous governments have been unable to implement.

“Any new deal will come with conditions and top of the list will be fiscal consolidation to shore up the country’s public finances,” said Capital Economics, the London-based consultancy in a report on Friday. “But . . . pressure from labour unions for public sector wage hikes, and the highly-fragmented nature of parliament will [make this] difficult to push through.”

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