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Tunisia rallies simmer before Arab Spring anniversary

Demonstrations break out across the country, with more expected before January 14 anniversary of 2011 uprising.

Tebourba on Tuesday

Hundreds of people clashed with police, blocked roads and burned tires overnight in a northern Tunisian city, with more protests expected before January 14 - the anniversary marking the removal of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country's former president.

At least eight security officers were injured in the coastal town of Nabeul during clashes with young protesters late on Tuesday, according to Tunisia's press agency TAP.

TAP reported that six government vehicles were also destroyed, while 23 people were arrested. 

In the neighbouring city of Kelibia, an estimated 300 demonstrators fought with police, and some were accused of looting a shopping centre, TAP also reported.

Individuals with "criminal records" infiltrated the protests in Kelibia, in the Nabeul governorate, TAP said.

At least five people were injured in the protests.

In Jebeniana and Sfax, protesters peacefully marched through the two cities. Members of civil society, young people and unemployed graduates were seen marching with schoolchildren and women, according to TAP.

The protesters chanted slogans warning the government of further action if it fails to help curb basic prices of goods.

Protests were also reported in Gafsa and Tebourba, a town of fewer than 30,000 people, west of the capital, Tunis.

Similar clashes were seen in the impoverished inland regions of Kasserine and Jelma, near Sidi Bouzid, where protests, which sparked the 2011 Arab Spring uprising that removed Ben Ali, started.

'What are we waiting for?'

Earlier on Tuesday, Tunisia's main opposition Popular Front party called for protests against a January 1 law raising fuel prices and increasing real estate tax.

The group #Fech_Nestannew (What are we waiting for?) also called for more protests in the governorates on January 12. 

The protest movement began spontaneously after a few people tagged the phrase on walls across cities in Tunisia.

On Monday, one person was killed following violence in Tebourba. A video circulating on Facebook on Tuesday purportedly showed how police ran over the 55-year-old man, but the country's interior ministry denied the allegations and insisted he died from "chronic shortness of breath".

'Only promises'

Med Dhia Hammami, a political analyst, said on Wednesday that he expects more protests leading to the Sunday anniversary of the Arab Spring uprisings, also known in Tunisia as the Jasmine Revolution.

Hammami, who attended the protests in the capital, Tunis, on Tuesday, said that an estimated 400 people were in attendance.

Six years since the 2011 uprising that overthrew Ben Ali, Tunisia has been held as a model for avoiding the violence that has affected other nations after their Arab Spring revolts.

But Tunisia's economy has struggled since the revolution, with growth remaining slow. 

Hammami said the government's austerity measures were to blame for the economic situation.

Increases in taxes and the prices of goods, and the depreciation of currency have only made the situation worse.

Imen Mhamdi, a 27-year-old university graduate who is employed as a factory worker, joined protests in the coastal city of Sousse this week.

"This government, like every government after Ben Ali, only gives promises and has done nothing," she said.

"People are angry and poverty is rising."

Mhamdi said in a telephone interview on Tuesday that many Tunisian youth have lost faith in political parties.

"I'm not feeling a lot of hope, but we are saying no [to austerity]," said Mhamdi. "We have to push this government to do something."

Struggling economy

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed had appealed for calm, promising that the economy would improve this year.

The government reached an agreement late 2017 with the International Monetary Fund for a four-year loan programme, worth about $2.8bn, in return for economic reforms.

Since 2011, politicians have struggled to enact fiscal reforms.

Prices of commodities have also gone up by double digits, leaving many families struggling every day.

January 2016 saw the biggest wave of public discontent since the 2011 uprising, as the death of an unemployed protester in Kasserine sparked days of unrest. 

In December 2017, unemployed protesters and activists marched through the streets of Sidi Bouzid, angry over the lack of jobs and opportunities that continue to plague residents.

Political analyst Hammami said the government is still "living in denial" of the country's economic situation.

"Until now, the government is refusing to show any positive reaction to the protests because they are seeing it as a political concession, not as a policy adjustment."


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