Tunisians Clash With Police as Protests Over Economy Build

TUNIS (Capital Markets in Africa) – Tunisian police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at demonstrators in the capital, Tunis, as increasingly violent protests test a government struggling to put its finances in order and attract investors.

Late Tuesday, a branch of the French superstore Carrefour was looted and attempts made to set the building on fire. Demonstrations began last week over the government’s budget, which includes higher taxes and spending cuts. One protester has died, and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed has called for calm.

The unrest poses one of the most serious challenges to Chahed’s government since it was formed in late 2016. Authorities promised the International Monetary Fund they would cut spending in exchange for a $2.9 billion loan that year, with the government trying to revive an economy that has struggled in the seven years since the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali — the first of the Arab Spring dictators to fall.

“Stuck between the IMF and a restive population, the government cannot simply try to please both and will need to come up with a new economic policy and narrative to break out of this impasse,” said Riccardo Fabiani, senior North Africa analyst with Eurasia Group in London.

No one group is controlling these protests, but many would exploit them for political gain, he added. “Far from being a second revolution, these protests have the potential of getting uglier,” he said.

Subsidy cuts are exacerbating hardship in a country where the youth unemployment rate exceeds 25 percent, or about double the national figure. Annual inflation reached 6.4 percent at the end of 2017, up from 4.2 percent a year earlier.

Since Ben Ali’s ouster, Tunisia has grappled with political instability and militant attacks that have driven away investors and tourists. The eight administrations that followed have faced pressure from labour unions demanding higher wages and greater opportunities for Tunisians — demands that were central to the 2011 uprising.

Demonstrations have broken out in the capital and other towns, with protesters blocking roads and throwing stones at police, who responded with rubber bullets, according to Mosaique FM radio. The main opposition party has called for continued but more peaceful protests. Authorities have arrested 237 people, the state-run TAP news agency reported, citing the Interior Ministry.

The Tunisian General Labour Union, the most powerful workers group, called for an “exceptional” increase in allowances given to needy families within a week, TAP reported. It also demanded the government raise the minimum wage and boost pay for construction workers.

Source: Bloomberg Business News


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