Tunisia arrests hundreds as protests against austerity grow

Rioting in several cities sparked by anger at measures agreed with IMF for €2.4bn loan

Tunisian protesters clash with security forces in Ettadhamen, Tunisia, on Wednesday. Photograph: EPA

Tunisian protesters clash with security forces in Ettadhamen, Tunisia, on Wednesday. Photograph: EPA

 

Tunisian authorities have arrested more than 300 people after a third night of violent rioting sparked by anger at austerity measures agreed with the International Monetary Fund in exchange for a $2.9 billion (€2.4 billion) loan.

Police used tear gas to disperse protesters in the poor districts of the capital, Tunis, and in the nearby town of Tebourba where one demonstrator was killed on Monday night.

Protesters in several cities looted shops and pelted police with stones. The army was deployed in some towns to guard government buildings attacked by angry crowds.

The continued unrest underlines popular frustration with the government’s failure to revive an economy damaged by political upheaval and terrorist attacks which have scared away tourists and investors.

Tunisia is seen as the only example of a successful democratic transition among those Arab countries that experienced uprisings seeking to overthrow dictatorial rulers in 2011. But the country’s political progress has not been matched by economic growth and has failed to provide jobs or a better standard of living for young Tunisians.

The main focus of the latest wave of popular fury is this year’s budget, which includes higher prices for subsidised petrol and increased taxes on cars, internet usage, phone calls and other items.

IMF pressure

Tunisia is under pressure from the IMF to reduce its budget deficit, which reached 6 per cent of gross domestic product last year. The 2018 budget aims to bring the deficit down to 4.9 per cent of GDP.

Youth unemployment is high at 25 per cent, which is twice the general average. Provinces in the interior of the country suffer disproportionately from poor infrastructure and services and a severe lack of jobs.

The wide disparity between the more prosperous coastal areas and the impoverished interior has not narrowed since the revolution, leaving many Tunisians disillusioned.

The government has been trying to reduce the public wage bill as part of its bid to control the spiralling deficit, but the powerful General Union of Tunisian Workers is fighting job cuts and has called for a rise in the minimum wage.

Opposition groups have called for big demonstrations on Sunday, the anniversary of the day on which Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s former dictator, fled the country seven years ago.

The planned rallies have been condemned by the Nahda party, an Islamist party that is part of the ruling coalition, which has accused the opposition of “providing political cover that justifies acts of violence and vandalism” in what is says is an attempt to spark early elections. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018