Tunisia mulls reforms after week of unrest

Protesters shout slogans against rising prices and tax increases in Tunis, Tunisia January 13, 2018. Photo: Reuters

TUNIS - Tunisia's President Beji Caid Essebsi consulted with political parties, unions and employers Saturday as the government mulled a package of social reforms following a week of unrest triggered by austerity measures.

The North African country has been shaken by a wave of protests over poverty and unemployment during which hundreds were arrested before the unrest tapered off.

"We are working on a social protection package, a minimum wage, universal healthcare and a housing plan," a government source said, on condition of anonymity.

"It's a very advanced law project that has been submitted to parliament and will be discussed within a week," he said, adding that it could be financed but without specifying if the package had been budgeted.

At the opening of his consultations, Essebsi accused the foreign press of "amplifying" the social unrest and damaging the country's image in its coverage of protests.

"The social and political climate are not good in Tunisia," he acknowledged, but his government was confident it could "overcome the problems".

The president said he would visit a disadvantaged neighbourhood of Tunis that had been the scene of street protests.

The two-hour crisis talks at the presidential palace brought together Essebsi, representatives of political parties, the powerful UGTT trade union and the UTICA employers federation.

"We discussed the general situation in the country and the reforms, especially socio-economic, that must be adopted to overcome the current problems," UTICA head Wided Bouchamaoui told reporters.

Although no concrete decisions were announced, Noureddine Taboubi, the secretary general of UGTT, said measures "must be adopted" to aid needy families and boost social care in the North African state.

Proposals were raised "to pull out of this tension" without scrapping a contested 2018 budget, said Rached Ghannouchi, head of the Islamist movement Ennahdha in Tunisia's ruling coalition, without elaborating.

UTICA and UGTT shared the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for their work during Tunisia's transition towards democracy after the revolution.

The demonstrations broke out ahead of Sunday's seventh anniversary of the toppling of veteran dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in a revolt that sparked uprisings across the Arab region.

The trigger for the protests on 7 January was the budget imposing tax hikes after a year of rising prices.

A man in his 40s died in unrest on Monday night in the northern town of Tebourba, though police have insisted they did not kill him.

Exaggeration in foreign press

Interior ministry spokesperson Khlifa Chibani on Saturday said a total of 803 people suspected of taking part in acts of violence, theft and looting were arrested this week.

Some 97 security forces and members of civil protection units were also injured, he said. There was no immediate toll for the number of protesters injured in the unrest.

Calm returned to the country on Thursday night and there was "no attack against public or private property" in the night of Friday to Saturday, Chibani said.

AFP correspondents reported one small protest overnight Friday in the central city of Sidi Bouzid - the cradle of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising - and said police fired teargas to disperse the demonstrators.

"There has been exaggeration in the foreign press" and "things have been magnified," Essebsi said at Saturday's talks of coverage of the unrest.

He said the Tunisian media's coverage had been "fair" and "balanced".

Tunisia is considered a rare success story of the Arab Spring uprisings that began in the North African country in 2011 and spread across the region, toppling autocrats.

But the authorities have failed to resolve the issues of poverty and unemployment.

Protests are common in Tunisia in January when people mark the anniversary of the revolution that ousted Ben Ali.

This year, the country has seen rising anger after the government adopted the 2018 budget which includes hikes in value-added tax, on mobile phones and real estate as well as in social contributions.


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