Tunisia imposes nationwide curfew amid growing unrest
BOUAZZA BEN BOUAZZA & BENJAMIN WIACEK
Jan. 22, 2016
KASSERINE, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisia's president vowed Friday to end the cycle of unrest that has pummeled towns across the country as authorities imposed a nationwide curfew — five years after the nation, convulsed by protests, overthrew its longtime ruler and moved onto the road to democracy.
President Beji Caid Essebsi warned that Tunisia could fall prey to Islamic State group militants in neighboring Libya profiting from the instability.
The violent demonstrations over unemployment opened a new front of concern for Tunisia, already struggling from a foundering economy and the threat of terrorism after three major attacks last year.
The week of increasingly violent demonstrations was triggered Sunday when a young man who was turned down for a government job climbed a transmission tower in protest and was electrocuted.
His death had unsettling resonance: The suicide five years ago of another unemployed youth set off the popular uprising that overthrew Tunisia's autocratic leader, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and gave rise to the "Arab Spring" uprisings. This North African country has been the only Arab Spring nation to avoid a chaotic aftermath and take the road to democracy.
"We will get out of this ordeal," the president said in his first address to the nation since the crisis erupted. He pressed the government to put in place a program to address unemployment. About one in three young people remains without work.
"One cannot speak of dignity without a job," he said. "You can't tell people who are hungry ... to be patient."
Tunisia's prime minister, Habib Essid, cut short a visit to France to preside over an extraordinary Cabinet meeting on Saturday.
A curfew from 8 p.m. until 5 a.m. was declared because the attacks on public and private property "represent a danger to the country and its citizens," the Interior Ministry said. Weekend sports events were canceled.
A tense calm reigned.
The unrest began Sunday in the town of Kasserine in central Tunisia where the young man electrocuted himself — not far from the town of Sidi Bouzid where a vegetable seller set himself afire in 2011, triggering Tunisia's revolution.
Tunisia's unemployment stands around 15 percent, but is 30 percent among youth and in the Tunisian heartland that has long felt ignored by the powers-that-be in the capital — despite government promises of change.
On Friday, hundreds of unemployed graduates filed into Kasserine's main administrative office demanding jobs. Others screamed from the top of the building before being escorted out by police, and still more held a sit-in inside the lobby.
"We want work, nothing less, nothing more," said one of the unemployed youths, Rafik Nasri. "You see all these people are unemployed, the well-read, the intellectual, the non-intellectual, the peasant or not, they're all demanding work."
The overnight curfew was imposed after the violence in Kasserine, about 300 kilometers (185 miles) southwest of Tunis, began spreading to other towns this week. On Friday, roving groups pillaged a bank and looted stores and a warehouse in the working class neighborhood of Ettadhamen outside the capital. Security forces arrested 16 people.
Security forces used tear gas to repel the protesters attacking police stations and other official buildings with stones and Molotov cocktails. A day earlier, a police officer was killed after protesters in the town of Feriana, near Kasserine, flipped over his car, the government said.
Tunisia has been under a state of emergency since a suicide bombing in November killed 12 members of the presidential guard in the heart of Tunis — an attack that capped an unusually violent year for the country. That bombing, along with deadly attacks against the Bardo museum in Tunis and the resort of Sousse, were claimed by the Islamic State group.
"Daesh, which is present in Libya at our borders, finds that the moment is opportune to act in Tunisia," the president said, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
On Thursday, Tunisian authorities said they intercepted four cars with armed men coming from Libya and chased them back across the border. On Friday, a Tunisian man was killed in an exchange of fire between Tunisian soldiers guarding a border post and a group of Libyans and Tunisians the Defense Ministry said were smugglers.
The unrest bred concern that Tunisia's bid to become a full-fledged democracy may be at risk.
In Paris just before leaving for home, Essid, the prime minister, said the problem was not with democracy, but with the economy.
"We have a set of policies to try to solve this issue, which is one of this government's main challenges," he said after meeting with French President Francois Hollande. "We don't have a magic wand. We can't solve the problem of unemployment in one go."
France promised aid worth 1 billion euros, much of it dedicated to inland regions far from the capital and coastal areas like Sousse, a tourist magnate on the Mediterranean. But tourism, a key element of Tunisia's economy, plummeted after last year's attacks, aggravating unemployment.
"It has been five years since the revolution," said Marouane M'daini, a college graduate from Kasserine who is among a quarter-million Tunisian young people who are educated but unemployed.
"I'd love to work, that's all I think about. It's exhausting," he said.
Ben Bouazza reported from Tunis. Associated Press writers Elaine Ganley and Lori Hinnant contributed to this report from Paris.