Tunisian army on the streets after days of major protests against austerity

Tunisia’s military has been deployed on the streets of several cities after three nights of widespread protests over the government’s new austerity measures. 

Demonstrators have been clashing with security forces since Monday night after a new budget raised taxes and pushed up the cost of living. 

More than 600 people have been arrested and dozens of police and soldiers have been injured in clashes that have spread across the country. 

Young men have burned tires and hurled Molotov cocktails and stones, while police have responded with tear gas. 

One man was killed on Monday in disputed circumstances: protesters say he was run over by a police vehicle while authorities deny that and suggest he may died from respiratory problems. 

Tunisian security forces track down protesters in the EttadhamenCredit:

The protests reflects months growing frustration in a country sometimes described as the “only success story” of the Arab spring. 

Tunisians overthrew their longtime dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in 2011 and inspired similar uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Syria. 

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While the other revolutions have descended into violence or given way to authoritarianism, Tunisia’s democracy remains for the most part intact. A secular party currently leads the government in coalition with a moderate Islamist group. 

But in return for a $2.9 billion loan (£2.2 billion) from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Tunisia agreed to take decisive economic measures to bring down the country’s deficit. 

On January 1 a new budget came into force which raised petrol prices and a series of taxes on houses, cars and other items. 

A riot policeman hide behind a wall during anti-government protests in TunisCredit:
AP Photo/Amine Landoulsi

Protesters took to the streets in smaller cities outside the capital, Tunis, with the support of some opposition parties and the country’s powerful UGTT union to oppose the austerity measures. 

Several days of peaceful protests escalated on Monday night as youths began burning tires to block streets and went on to clash with security forces. Fire bombs were thrown at two Jewish schools on the island of Djerba, damaging the exteriors but not the insides. 

The government ordered soldiers onto the streets to bolster the police. Large demonstrations are expected on Friday, the traditional day of protest in the Middle East and North Africa. 

Saad Aldouri, a research analyst on the Middle East programme at Chatham House, said that so far the government has held firm and pressed ahead with its austerity programme. 

“There is a danger of escalation due to the way government is handling this. They have been more conciliatory in the past and given some concessions. This time, because of the conditions of the IMF loan I don’t think they are going to budge or it will be more difficult for them to budge,” Mr Aldouri said. 

Tunisian activist speaks in front of anti-government protestors in TunisCredit:

While the protests were sparked by the new budget, frustrations over a lack of economic progress has been growing for some time. 

After passing a new constitution and a law for reconciling with members of the former regime, Tunisians had hoped that the difficult political task would yield economic benefits. 

“The fear among many is that the political progress could be undone by a lack of progress on economic and social issues,” Mr Aldouri said.  

The reconciliation law was controversial because it was seen by many Tunisians as an amnesty for officials and businessmen who had benefited from decades of corrupt and despotic rule under Mr Ben Ali.

“People ask: “What’s to stop these guys coming back and re-establishing their hold over the state?” said Mr Aldouri. 

Tunisia’s economy, like that of Egypt, has suffered as tourists shy away from the country in the wake of several major terror attacks. 

Thirty-eight people, including 30 British citizens, were killed during a massacre at a beach resort near the town of Sousse in June 2015.

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