Tunisia to boost aid to needy as hundreds protest against austerity

Protests erupted last Monday across Tunisia, triggered by tax and price hikes imposed on January 1st

People attend demonstrations on the seventh anniversary of the toppling of president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, in Tunis, on Sunday. Photograph:  Amine Ben Aziza/Reuters

People attend demonstrations on the seventh anniversary of the toppling of president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, in Tunis, on Sunday. Photograph: Amine Ben Aziza/Reuters

 

Hundreds of Tunisians demonstrated peacefully against government austerity measures in the capital after nearly a week of sometimes violent protests on Sunday, the seventh anniversary of the ousting of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Protests erupted last Monday in several towns and cities across Tunisia, triggered by tax and price hikes imposed on January 1st as the government seeks to reduce a budget deficit to meet an agreement with its international donors. Almost 800 people have been arrested for vandalism and acts of violence, including throwing petrol bombs at police stations, according to the interior ministry.

Authorities announced plans to boost aid to the needy in a bid to placate the protesters.

A coalition of political parties and associations called for peaceful protests on the anniversary to tell the country’s new leaders that they have failed to fix problems that encouraged the revolution and hopes of social and economic justice.

A new finance law raising prices of essential goods sparked the unrest.

Tunisian people march with national flags during a rally to mark seven years since revolution in Tunis on Sunday. Photograph: Hassene Dridi/AP
Tunisian people march with national flags during a rally to mark seven years since revolution in Tunis on Sunday. Photograph: Hassene Dridi/AP

The Tunisian economy has struggled since President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled into exile on January 14th, 2011, transforming the country into a budding democracy that inspired the Arab Spring, then defied it by being the only country to keep its transition peaceful.

But six governments later, loans continue to weigh on the economy, extremist attacks have sapped the important tourism sector, and regions far from the capital, where the revolution was ignited, remain neglected.

Tunisia’s prime minister Youssef Chahed decided to allocate 100 million dinars (€33m) to help 200,000 of the neediest families plus free health care for the jobless, social affairs minister Mohamed Trabelsi announced after a Saturday night cabinet meeting.

An aid fund for poor families to acquire housing also was created.

The Popular Front, a coalition of leftist parties, called the measures “laughable” and in a statement Sunday called for protests “until suspension of the measures in the finance law that affect citizens’ buying power”.

Frustration was in full view last week when small demonstrations erupted around the country before ballooning and degenerating into theft, pillaging and car-burning in some places as momentum grew.

Tunisian protesters light flares and shout slogans during a celebration to mark the seventh anniversary of the uprising. Photograph: Mohamed Messara/EPA
Tunisian protesters light flares and shout slogans during a celebration to mark the seventh anniversary of the uprising. Photograph: Mohamed Messara/EPA

A police crackdown stemmed the protests by week’s end.

One person died in unrest outside the capital, Tunis, and scores were injured, including 97 security officers in five days of unrest that began a week ago, Interior Ministry spokesman Khlifa Chibani said on Friday.

Dozens of police cars were damaged, two police stations burned and eight others ransacked. Arrests were put at nearly 780, including 16 religious extremists, for vandalism and looting.

President Beji Caid Essebsi was visiting on Sunday a housing project outside Tunis that had been a site of unrest.

“Tunisians are capable of overcoming current difficulties,” he said on Saturday night, calling on citizens “for a bit of patience and understanding”. –AP and Reuters