Protests in Tunisia Spur Government to Pledge Aid to Poor

Tunisia plans to increase aid for poor families by $70.3 million, after nearly a week of protests over austerity measures, an official said Saturday.

“This will concern about 250,000 families,” Mohamed Trabelsi, minister of social affairs, said. “It will help the poor and middle class.”

President Beji Caid Essebsi was also scheduled to visit the poor district of Ettadhamen in the capital, Tunis, which was hit by protests.

Essebsi was set to give a speech and open a cultural center, Reuters reported. It was to be the president’s first visit to the district.

Several hundred protesters took to the streets Saturday in Sidi Bouzid, where a 2011 uprising began, touching off the Arab Spring protests. And on Friday, protesters in cities and towns across the country waved yellow cards — a warning sign to the government — and brandished loaves of bread, a symbol of the day-to-day struggle to afford basic goods.

Anger has been growing since the government introduced price hikes earlier this month, which came atop already soaring inflation.

WATCH: Protests Erupt Again in Tunisia, Cradle of 2011 Arab Spring

Since Monday, security forces have been deployed in Tunis and across the country. Several hundred people have been arrested, including opposition politicians, while dozens have been injured in clashes with police. A 55-year-old man died earlier this week, though the circumstances of his death remained unclear.

The scenes of protest are reminiscent of January 2011, when demonstrations swept across the country, eventually toppling dictator Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali before spreading across the region.

“Why did we do the revolution? For jobs, for freedom and for dignity. We obtained freedom, sure — but we’re going hungry,” unemployed protester Walid Bejaoui said Friday.

One of the main protest organizations is using the Arabic social media hashtag “Fesh Nestannew?” or “What Are We Waiting For?” The group is urging a return to the spirit of the 2011 revolt.

“We believe a dialogue is still possible and reforms are still possible. The yellow card is to say, ‘Attention: Today we have the same demands that we have been having for years. It’s time to tackle the real problems, the economic crisis, the high cost of living,’ ” said Henda Chennaoui, a Fesh Nestannew protester.

The government enacted a new law this month raising taxes to try to cut the deficit, a move largely driven by Tunisia’s obligations to its international creditors, said analyst Max Gallien of the London School of Economics.

“I think that this government feels that its ability to make its own economic policy or its ability to roll back these austerity reforms is very much limited by the demands of international financial institutions,” he said, “primarily the IMF,” or International Monetary Fund.

The government has condemned the violence but pledged to listen to the protesters.

“No matter what the government undertakes, its top priority — even during tough decisions — is improving the economic and social conditions of the people,” Prime Minister Youssef Chahed told reporters Thursday.

So could the region witness a repeat of 2011, with the protests gaining momentum?

“We’re looking at a different region now. But at the same time, there are similarities: the issue of austerity, of socioeconomic nationalization, of corruption and predation by elites,” analyst Gallien said.

The Tunisian government’s task is to address those deep-rooted problems before the protests spin out of control.


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