Protests erupt in Tunisian cities amid anger over economy

Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi reshuffles Cabinet as country's woes persist

FILE - In this file photo dated Friday, Jan. 14, 2011, a demonstrators throws a stone at police during clashes in Tunis. Tunisia's president declared a state of emergency and announced that he would fire his government as violent protests escalated Friday, with gunfire echoing in the North African country's usually calm capital and police lobbing tear gas at protesters. On Thursday Jan. 14, 2021, Tunisia commemorates 10 years since the flight into exile of its iron-fisted leader, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, pushed from power in a popular revolt that foreshadowed the so-called Arab Spring.(AP Photo/Christophe Ena, FILE)
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Violent protests broke out in at least six Tunisian cities on Saturday night, including the capital Tunis and the coastal city of Sousse, as anger mounts over economic hardship.

Security forces fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of protesters who blocked roads and burnt tyres in Sousse, where young men also broke into shops, witnesses and security sources said.

Clashes were reported in the nearby city of Kalaa Kebira and in several areas of Tunis, including Ettadhamen, Mallassin and Fouchana and Sijoumi.

There were also night protests and riots in the northern towns of Kef, Bizerte and Siliana.

The protests were reportedly sparked by a video posted on social media that showed a policeman scolding and pushing a shepherd whose sheep had entered the governerate headquarters in Siliana.

Activists said that it was unacceptable to harm the dignity of any citizen, a decade after Tunisians revolted against injustice and oppression. The Public Prosecution office opened an investigation into the incident.

Tunisia last week marked 10 years since the overthrow of autocratic president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in an uprising triggered by widespread unemployment, poverty, corruption and injustice. While the country established a functioning democracy, the problems behind the uprising have not been resolved.

The protests pose a challenge for Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, who announced a major Cabinet reshuffle on Saturday that affected 12 ministries.

"The aim of this reshuffle is to achieve greater efficiency in the work of the government," Mr Mechichi said.

The changes must be approved by parliament.

A few hours before the announcement, he met President Kais Saied, who said integrity of proposed ministers should "raise no doubt", according to the presidency.

"There is no place for people who are subject to legal proceedings" or to doubts about "their background or their behaviour that could undermine the state and the credibility of its institutions and the legitimacy of its decisions", Mr Saied said.

Health minister Faouzi Mehdi was replaced by another doctor, Hedi Khairi from Sousse, following criticism over the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, with the official date for the start of vaccinations in Tunisia still unknown.

Chiheb Ben Ahmed, chief executive of the Tunisian Exports Promotion Centre, was nominated as environment minister after the previous incumbent, Mustapha Aroui, was sacked and arrested in December in a scandal involving hundreds of containers of household waste shipped from Italy.

Cabinet chief Walid Dhahbi has been put forward as interior minister to replace Taoufik Charfeddine.

Mr Charfeddine, a former lawyer and pillar of Mr Saied's election campaign, was sacked this month over high-level staffing changes he sought to make to some security agencies, according to Mr Mechichi.

The reshuffle also affects the ministries of justice, industry, energy and agriculture.

Tunisia has had nine governments in 10 years, but the transfers of power have been peaceful.

But since the 2019 general election, the political class has been more fragmented than ever and paralysed by infighting, fuelling discontent over the continued economic malaise, which has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.