Tunisia holds emergency cabinet meeting over unemployment riots

Tunisia’s prime minister says the country’s young democracy would be preserved “whatever the cost” following four days of violent protests and riots against unemployment.

Tunisia's Prime Minister Habib Essid shares a smile with ministers prior to an extraordinary cabinet meeting in Carthage, outside Tunis, to end the cycle of unrest that has pummelled towns across the country five years after the nation overthrew its longtime ruler. (AP Photo/Riadh Dridi)
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TUNIS // Tunisia’s prime minister said on Saturday that the country’s young democracy would be preserved “whatever the cost” following four days of violent protests and riots against unemployment.

Meanwhile, an interior ministry spokesman said the situation was calm across most of the country, a day after authorities imposed a nationwide night-time curfew.

The demonstrations that began in the impoverished town of Kasserine on Tuesday and spread across the country are the most serious since the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Prime minister Habib Essid, who held an emergency cabinet meeting on Saturday, said he understood the demands of young Tunisians and that it would take time to respond to their economic demands.

But he added that those seeking to “destroy the democratic transition” had taken advantage of the protests.

“I appeal for calm and for national unity and complete security across the country to preserve our nascent democracy which is the only example of success in the region,” he said.

“There has been huge political progress but we acknowledge that there are lots of economic difficulties. We will respond to young people’s economic demands but we need a bit of time for that.”

He said Tunisian democracy would not be destroyed, “whatever the cost”.

Authorities arrested 261 people over the unrest and 84 for violating the 8pm to 5am curfew on Friday, the interior ministry said.

Protests this week have seen demonstrators storm police stations and local government buildings and clash with riot police. One policeman has been killed and dozens injured.

“Security-wise, it has started to stabilise,” interior ministry spokesman Walid Louguini said on Saturday.

In Kasserine, calm had returned to the town after a day of clashes.

And in nearby Sidi Bouzid – the cradle of the 2011 uprising – teenagers set fire to tyres but the situation was relatively under control.

Anger erupted over the death on January 16 of Ridha Yahyaoui, a 28-year-old unemployed man who was electrocuted when he climbed a power pole while protesting in the central town of Kasserine.

Yahyaoui’s father, Othman Yahyaoui, said on Friday that his son was “a victim of corruption, marginalisation and unkept promises”.

Mehrez, a brother, said impoverished youths were being driven towards “drug trafficking and terrorism”, in reference to the thousands of young Tunisians who have signed up with extremist organisations such as ISIL.

While Tunisia is considered a rare success story of the Arab Spring uprisings, the authorities have failed to resolve the problems of social exclusion and regional inequalities.

Groups including the Tunisian League for Human Rights and Oxfam on Friday urged the government “to adopt an economic model aimed at reducing regional disparities and social injustices”.

* Reuters, Agence France-Presse