Tunisia on Friday declared a nighttime curfew across the country after a wave of protests and clashes that constitute the most serious outbreak of social unrest since its 2011 revolution.
Five years after the overthrow of longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, street demonstrations against unemployment and poverty have again rattled the North African nation.
President Beji Caid Essebsi, in a televised address to the nation, expressed understanding for the frustrations vented in impoverished regions of central Tunisia.
Such protests were “natural”, he said. “There is no dignity without work… You can’t tell someone who has nothing to eat to stay patient.”
But he also warned against exploiting the legitimate grievances of demonstrators.
“After the start of these demonstrations, ill-intentioned hands have intervened and inflamed the situation,” the president said in his first public remarks since the troubles broke out.
Anger erupted over the death last Saturday of Ridha Yahyaoui, a 28-year-old unemployed man who was electrocuted when he climbed a power pole while demonstrating in the central town of Kasserine.
The unrest has spread around the country including to Tunis where shops were burnt and looted in one suburb.
The interior ministry said the 8:00 pm to 5:00 am curfew was necessary to prevent damage to property and to ensure public safety.
Prime Minister Habib Essid, on a visit to France, said that the situation “has been brought under control”.
Earlier in the day, however, new clashes erupted in the central town of Sidi Bouzid between stone-throwing protesters and police who fired tear gas, according to an AFP journalist.
Authorities called for calm after 16 people were arrested on vandalism charges in a suburb of Tunis, the latest incident in almost a week of unrest.
National Guard units clashed with individuals in balaclavas until early Friday, an official said.
An AFP journalist reported that two household appliance stores and a bank branch had been ransacked on the neighbourhood’s main street and a police post burnt.
In central Tunisia, security forces have clashed with protesters in several towns, including in Kasserine where the unrest started, using tear gas and water cannons to disperse crowds.
– Self-immolation attempt –
On Friday morning, a man tried to set himself on fire but was prevented by bystanders, as hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the governor’s office, an AFP correspondent said.
At least three police stations have been attacked in the past 24 hours and 42 members of the security forces wounded, the interior ministry said.
“This is the most serious social crisis since 2011,” independent analyst Selim Kharrat told AFP.
The unrest has echoes of the public anger unleashed by the death of a street vendor who set himself on fire in December 2010 in Sidi Bouzid in protest at unemployment and police harassment.
That desperate act of defiance provided the spark for the uprising that overthrew Ben Ali and inspired revolutions across the Arab world.
Yahyaoui’s family on Friday expressed similar anger.
“My son was a victim of corruption, marginalisation and unkept promises,” his father Othman Yahyaoui said, calling for state compensation for Ridha’s death and for his son to be recognised as a “martyr”.
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 jihadist organisations such as the Islamic State (IS) group.
– Social exclusion, inequality –
The new spike in unrest has prompted Essid to cut short a European tour and return for an emergency meeting of his cabinet on Saturday.
France on Friday pledged one billion euros ($1.1 billion) in development aid to Tunisia over the next five years, after Essid held talks with French President Francois Hollande.
While Tunisia is hailed as a rare success story of the Arab Spring uprisings, the authorities have failed to resolve the problems of social exclusion and regional inequalities.
Several groups, including the Tunisian League for Human Rights and Oxfam, Friday urged the government “to adopt an economic model aimed at reducing regional disparities and social injustices”.
Tunisia also faces jihadist violence that has devastated its vital tourism industry.