Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi downplayed the protests and blamed the media for exaggerations and ‘improper use of freedom’. Essebsi stated the difficulty of the government’s situation, which inherited “700, 000” unemployed in a country of 11 million, but in taking a swipe at the media he all but insured the tone with which speech would be covered.
As protests, both violent and nonviolent, continued to spread throughout Tunisia on Wednesday, in solidarity with the protesters in Kasserine where the violence intensified resulting in the death of a member of the security forces and numerous injuries amongst both protesters and security forces.
Unemployed graduates supported by civil society groups took to the streets in disruptive but mostly peaceful protests in Tunis, Siliana, Zaghouan, Sidi Bouzid, Sousse, Sfax, Gafsa, Gabes, Kairouan and Kef. Essentially with few exceptions most major cities in Tunisia saw protests as well as many smaller towns and suburbs.
Though the majority of spreading protests were peaceful, violent clashes between protesters and security agents also spread, most notably in the outskirts of Kasserine and the suburbs of Tunis, with sporadic incidents of violence were reported throughout the country.
The protesters are calling on the government to take action to stop administrative corruption and accelerate the process of development and job creation in the country’s interior. Dusting off the 2011 Revolutionary chant of “Work, freedom, dignity”. Many of the protesters referred to the 2011 Revolution as a political one saying the country now needed a ‘social revolution’. Although it would certainly be premature to call the protests, which are rapidly spreading, a ‘second revolution’ it is clear these protests have taken on a dimension which has not been seen since the 2013 political crisis or perhaps even the 2011 Revolution.
An agent of the security forces died in Feriana, outside Kasserine, after being assaulted by protesters. Four other members of security forces were reportedly injured in the incident. The security agent was identified as Sofiene Bousalmi, and died after being wounded by protesters as he attempted to exit his overturned vehicle, according to an Interior Ministry statement.
Protester threw Molotov cocktails and set fire to tires and for a time occupied the headquarters of the municipal government in Kasserine. Security forces responded with tear gas, water cannons, warning shots and according to some reports on social media which were picked up by the press used rubber bullets on protesters, a claim which was refuted by the Interior Ministry.
Abdelghani Chaabani, the top regional health official, told Agence France Presse (AFP) that “eight police were injured in Kasserine as well as another 11 in nearby Thala”.
Several dozen protesters in Kasserine were also treated for other injuries, including several men who were injured after jumping from the rooftop of the municipal government headquarters on Tuesday, after threatening to commit suicide. According to Tunisia-Live 246 people were treated for tear gas inhalation at the regional hospital in Kasserine.
In addition to denying security forces had fired rubber bullets on protesters, Interior Ministry spokesman Walid Louguini, told local radio that the ministry had no intention of stopping peaceful protests and supported the protesters rights of assembly. Louguini added that the ministry supported the ‘legitimate demands of the residents of Kasserine for jobs and development’.
Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi seemed dangerously out of touch when he addressed the protests at a press conference. Essebsi was speaking earlier in the day, before most of protests had resumed and new ones emerged, alongside the visiting Austrian President Heinz Fischer. But Essebsi’s attempt to downplay the previous night’s incidents will overshadow his statements on the quasi impossible situation the government finds itself in.
رئيس الجمهورية: إحتجاجات العاطلين عن العمل مشروعة ويكفلها الدستوررئيس الجمهوريّة : إحتجاجات العاطلين عن العمل مشروعة ويكفلها الدستور والدولة ضامنة لحق التظاهر من الندوة الصحفيّة المشتركة التي انعقدت اليوم الأربعاء 20 جانفي 2016 بقصر قرطاج بمناسبة الزيارة الرسمية التي يؤديها الرئيس النمساوي
Posted by Présidence Tunisie رئاسة الجمهورية التونسية on Wednesday, January 20, 2016
Essebsi stated in comments appropriate for a local strike or protest that: “Though legitimate, these protests must not be amplified,” and that the protests showed the “commitment of the Presidency of the Republic to protect freedom of expression and the right to assembly, that are guaranteed by the constitution.” but then unwisely added: “These freedoms are often used ‘improperly,’ particularly by the press” whom he accused of exaggerating the extent of the protests.
With Prime Minister Habib Essid abroad attending the annual World Economic Forum at Davos, it was Finance Minister Slim Chaker who presided over an emergency cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Kasbah Office. After the emergency meeting, which was also attended by Kasserine’s Governor Chadli Bouallegue and eight of Kasserine’s deputies in the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP), the Prime Minister’s spokesman Khaled Chouket admitted “We don’t have a magic wand to fix the situation in Kasserine straight away, but we are working on public investments that will start soon there,”
Chouket announced: ‘[The] formation of a national commission to investigate cases of corruption raised and take administrative measures and penal measures against all of the necessary investigations to prove bypassed the law and formalities.’ adding that several measures would be initiated or accelerated including:
- The recruitment 5,000 unemployed individuals through the implementation of a new employment mechanism.
- The accelerated recruitment of 1400 unemployed individuals through the existing mechanisms.
- The allocation of 6 million Dinars towards the simplification of administrative recruitment procedures of 500 small projects. The projects, which are under the Ministry of Vocational Training and Employment, are funded by the National Bank of Solidarity, and thus not fully under the budgetary control of the Ministry of Vocational Training and Employment.
- The privatization of state owned land in the Kasserine region by March 31, 2016.
- The allocation of 135 million dinars in 1000 to build social housing units.
- The addition of 13 vehicles, including four ambulances, to the regional health authorities in Kasserine.
The Ministry of Vocational Training and Employment’s website lists Tunisia’s overall unemployment rate for 2014 as 15% against a rate of 15.3% in 2013, and 16.7% in 2012. Youth unemployment stands in excess of 30% nationally and higher in certain regions, particularly the interior governorates of Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine.
The protests, which began in Kasserine before spreading throughout the country, had begun as a sit-in by unemployed locals demanding jobs, but turned violent following the funeral of Ridha Yahyaoui on Sunday.
Yahyaoui, an unemployed man in his mid to late twenties, had been participating in sit in protests outside the municipal headquarters with other unemployed youth demanding municipal jobs. On Saturday, upon discovering that his name had been removed from a list job candidates maintained by the municipality, Yahyaoui climbed an electric post near the sit-in. Accounts differ as to whether he was climbing the post to deliver a speech or to make a suicide threat. Whether accidentally or as an intentional act of suicide, Yahyaoui came into contact with the high tension wires and fell to ground.
Yahyaoui was transported to the regional hospital in Sfax where he pronounced dead on Saturday, January 16, 2016. The regional hospital in Kasserine lacked the resources to treat the burns which followed his electrocution. Just as the regional hospital in the neighboring governorate of Sidi Bouzid lacked the facilities necessary to treat the burns of Mohamed Bouazizi five years ago.
According to a source cited by Agence France Presse (AFP) ‘seven names, including that of the victim, had been removed from the new list, which originally included 79 people.’ The list consisted of local unemployed university graduates who were to be given priority access to local government jobs. There are reports, and more importantly reports which are accepted as fact by the protesters, that Yahyaoui’s name was removed from the as a retaliation for his participation in protests and sit-ins.
On Monday, Prime Minister Habib Essid announced the first delegate of the governorate Kasserine, responsible for maintaining the list, was dismissed and an investigation would be opened into “the circumstances of the development of this list in order to take the necessary measures.”
President Beji Caid Essebsi’s statements yesterday, who spoke early in day before most of the protests resumed, will be replayed tomorrow alongside images of protests violent and non-violent spreading across the country, including news that a member of the security forces was killed by protesters.
There have been countless protests, sit-ins and hunger strikes by unemployed youths in the years since the 2011 Revolution. As well as numerous, seemingly weekly suicides, including several by self immolation. But most of those suicides were acts of personal despair and loss of hope, and were not prompted by an official. It matters little at this point whether the accusations that the official was corrupt, vindictive or are accurate, the nerve has been struck. Yahyaoui’s suicide has combined the protests, the hopelessness of a dire economic situation, and the perceived or real misdeeds of a government official into a dangerous cocktail.
The Government of Prime Minister Habib Essid should and appears to have become acutely aware of the fact that statements will need to be followed with immediate action that should be measured in hours and days not weeks and months. The declarations made from an emergency cabinet meeting, though potentially a step in the right direction, will ring hollow after so many years of under delivered promises.
Essid may even have to shuttle to and from Davos, or cut the trip short, to mitigate damage and save his two week old second government. Particularly when President Essebsi, who does not seem to have recovered from a catastrophic Nidaa Tounes party congress which hastened the party’s breakup. Inviting Ennahda’s head Rached Ghannouchi as the keynote speaker, while Nidaa Tounes party was in mid crisis over its alliance with the Islamist Ennahda, now seems a catastrophic blunder. Essebsi seemed intent on maintaining the appearance of unity, rather than addressing the problems within Nidaa Tounes’ base. Rifts over the perceived hereditary handover of party leadership to his son Hafedh Essebsi, and opposition within a party created as a ‘Not-Ennahda’ coalition over its rapprochement with Ennahda.
The mishandling of the situation now leaves Essebsi politically weakened, Essebsi’s Nidaa Tounes party paid dearly for that misjudgement, if Essebsi misjudges the current protests Tunisia will pay dearly. Essebsi’s swipe at the ‘improper’ use of freedom by the press may not engender any goodwill over the coming days, particularly as the past weeks have seen him lose much political capital.
Protesters yesterday directed their ire not at Essebsi but at Zied Laadhari, the Tunisian Minister of Vocational Training and Employment, who retained his post in a recent government reshuffle. With Essid away at Davos, it falls on Essebsi to find the voice he had in the 2014 presidential campaign as a steady hand to stabilize the country.
For now Laadhari appeared on many of the protesters’ signs harkening back to the revolution, Laadhari’s name now appears where Ben Ali’s once was alongside the word ‘Degage’ or ‘get out’ over poor results from employment reforms and perceived inaction. But if Essebsi is not careful he may gradually find it is he who finds himself on the placards.
On Wednesday, in a separate incident eerily similar to circumstances surrounding Bouazizi’s suicide, a man in Sfax lit his car on fire and then himself outside the Port of Sfax’s customs office, after the goods he was selling were confiscated. The man died while being transported to the Sfax regional hospital.
Essebsi will not make the same mistakes Ben Ali made in his final days, but in doing so he may have to use his remaining political capital. Essebsi faces a near impossible situation economically and politically, rather than sacrificing Employment Minister Laadhari, Essebsi may find his former allies, the Nidaa defectors, who will instead demand his son Hafedh Essebsi sacrifice his ambitions.