Tunisia’s unemployment suicides and protests

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Police forces dispersed hundreds of students demonstrating Tuesday in the streets of Thala, a town located in west central Tunisia, with tear gas. The day before, over 250 young people had taken to the streets of the same city to denounce skyrocketing unemployment rates and free-falling living conditions. Since mid-December, rising discontent and protests have become the order of the day in the Northern African country amid accusations leveled at the authorities for remaining silent over the population’s concerns. In response, President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali Tuesday appointed an official spokesperson for the government.

It is back to another hectic holiday season in Tunisia. Hundreds of students took to the streets of Thala, a town located about 250 km from Tunis, the capital, on two consecutive days, Monday and Tuesday, to express their concerns. According to several eyewitnesses who spoke to AFP and AP news agencies, several unemployed people joined the protest march. The police, backed by reinforcements from neighboring regions, had violently dispersed the demonstrators with batons and tear gas.

“They (police) are now surrounding teachers and students inside our college, refusing to let anyone leave the college. There are some cases of asphyxiation because of the tear gas,” eyewitness Belgacem Saihi was quoted as saying by GulfToday; a statement that was confirmed by Jamal Boulabi who heads the teachers’ union in Thala.

Another unionist who requested anonymity told the Associated Press that while many had been arrested, several wounded people had also been transferred to hospital at Kasserine, the regional capital. Thala schools were closed on Tuesday afternoon.

Monday’s protest in Thala had also degenerated into a riot; Protesters torched the headquarters of the ruling party and set fire to car tires. Other cities, including Sfax, Sidi Bouzid, Tunis, and Bizerte Grombalia, saw students responding to messages sent via social networks as they rallied together, albeit on a smaller scale. In Jbeniana, two youths were arrested, while students and security forces clashed in Sousse, according to RFI.

And after accusing the opposition of politically manipulating the demonstrations, the government Tuesday decided to react, politically. Following criticisms over his silence, in a backdrop of official media censorship concerning the issues expressed by the young protesters, President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who has been in power for 23 years, appointed the Tunisian government’s first ever official spokesperson. According to the government’s news sources, the new official has been assigned to the new Communications Minister Samir Laabidi.

Tunisia has been faced with significant social unrest since December 17 when riots erupted after a young unemployed man, Bouazizi Mohammed, from Sidi Bouzid committed suicide to protest the confiscation of his goods by the police. The city’s authorities had also prevented him from selling his fruits and vegetables. Houcine Neji, on the other hand, was killed on December 22 when he climbed an electric pole to protest against unemployment. Such has become the expression of distress among Tunisia’s youth.

Following the unrest – which left three dead and one fatally injured in Sidi Bouzid – President Ben Ali has given the governor of Sidi Bouzid the boot and announced “urgent” measures to jump-start the local economy by launching projects to encourage job creation in the country’s hinterland. But his promises have failed to ease tension in the Northern African country. Meanwhile, lawyers have also called for a general strike on January 6 to support the young protesters and also denounce the authorities’ attitude towards them.

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