Tunisia Plans Social Reforms After Wave of Anti-Austerity Protests

Anti-government protest in Tunisia (file photo).
14 January 2018

Tunisia's government has announced a new package of social reforms worth nearly $70 million. The North African country has been rocked by protests ahead of the seventh anniversary of the Arab Spring uprising.

The Tunisian government on Saturday announced a social reforms package aimed at improving care for the needy and increasing access to health care following a wave of anti-austerity protests.

Social Affairs Minister Mohamed Trabelsi said the measures increase monthly benefits to low-income families from roughly €50 per month to €70 ($85). In total, the social reforms package, which requires parliamentary approval, will amount to an increase of 170 million dinars (€56 million/$69 million).

Read more: Seven years after Arab Spring, Tunisia's future uncertain

"This will concern about 250,000 families," Trabelsi said. "It will help the poor and middle class."

The announcement comes after Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi met with labor unions, political parties and companies to discuss anti-austerity protests triggered by tax increases that kicked in January 1.

"We discussed the general situation in the country and the reforms, especially socioeconomic, that must be adopted to overcome the current problems," said Wided Bouchamaoui, who heads the UTICA employers' federation.

Commemorating a revolution

The announcement comes the day before the seventh anniversary of anti-government protests that led to the ouster of longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and triggered the so-called Arab Spring, a revolutionary wave of demonstrations across North Africa and the Middle East.

Protest organizers have called for mass demonstrations to mark the anniversary, saying the nine governments since then have failed to rectify their demands for economic liberty and social justice.

However, Tunisian authorities have been swift to quash anti-government protests. Interior Ministry spokesman Khlifa Chibani on Saturday said more than 800 people had been arrested on suspicion of engaging in violent acts during the week's protests, including rioting and looting.

On Friday, police used tear gas to disperse a crowd of demonstrators protesting in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid, considered the epicenter of the Arab Spring in 2011.

In December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, his family's sole breadwinner, set himself on fire to protest the confiscation of his fruit cart by police. The event triggered demonstrations across the country, which eventually spread to others in the Arab world.

Increasing anger

Tunisians have held rallies across the country to protest the government's new austerity measures, aimed at minimizing the country's deficit. The Tunisian people have become increasingly angry since the government said it would increase the price of petrol, some goods, and taxes on cars, phone calls, the internet, hotel accommodation and other items from January 1.

One protester dead

One protester died in unclear circumstances in Tebourba, a town 40 kilometers west of the capital Tunis. The Interior Ministry said that the 43-year old male was not killed due to police violence, but an autopsy would be carried out to determine the cause of death.

'Nothing to do with democracy'

Interior Ministry spokesman Khelifa Chibani said 44 protesters were arrested for carrying weapons such as knives, setting government buildings on fire and robbing stores. "What happened had nothing to do with democracy and protests against price hikes ... Yesterday protesters burned down two police stations, they looted shops, banks and damaged property in many cities," Chibani said.

Opposition to increase protests

The leader of Tunisia's main opposition party Popular Front, Hamma Hammami, said they would step up protests until the government changed its "unjust" 2018 budget. "Today we have a meeting with the opposition parties to coordinate our movements, but we will stay on the street and we will increase the pace of the protests until the unjust financial law will be dropped," Hammami said.

Tunisia's economy in crisis

Tunisia's has been in economic crisis since 2011, when the Arab Spring uprising unseated the government. Two major militant attacks in 2015 also greatly damaged the country's tourism industry, which made up eight percent of gross domestic product. Many people face unemployment, with official figures put the unemployment rate at around 15 percent.

ls/cmk (AFP, Reuters)

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