Tunis Under Curfew, Troops on Streets as Protests Over Unemployment Resume

(Corrects period of curfew in second paragraph.)

Tunisia deployed troops on the streets of Tunis, the interior minister was fired and the capital was under a curfew amid a resumption of protests that have left at least 21 people dead since last month.

Another 10 people were killed in three cities in the North African nation, with several injured in clashes in the second- largest city, Sfax, al-Arabiya television said yesterday after the demonstrations grew. Police fired tear gas to try to break up a crowd that gathered at a main intersection in Tunis. The curfew was due to end today at 6 a.m., the government said.

Yesterday’s deployment of soldiers and armored vehicles was the first in central Tunis since the eruption of public dissent, rare in Tunisia, which began last month in the province of Sidi Bouzid after a 26-year-old man set himself on fire to protest unemployment. Many shops were closed as residents stayed home.

The government will form committees to investigate the unrest and claims of corruption, and free people held during the protests, Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi told reporters yesterday in the capital. Ahmed Friaa will take over as interior minister from Rafik Belhaj Kacem, he said. Friaa, a university professor, formerly held the communications and housing portfolios.

“The current situation does not help increase investments,” Ghannouchi said. “Security must be restored.”

The benchmark stock index closed yesterday 3.4 percent lower, at 4,726.75, the lowest level in almost nine months. That brought the gauge’s three-day loss to 9.4 percent, the most since Bloomberg started tracking the index in 1999.

‘Legitimate Demands’

“It’s a social problem, and these demands for jobs are legitimate because Tunisia is facing serious problems despite all its efforts,” Tunisia’s ambassador to France, Mohamed Raouf Najjar, said in an interview with RTL radio yesterday. “Tunisia, despite these insufficiencies, is certainly not in the worst case. What country has achieved full employment?”

The government plans to provide grants and health coverage to holders of higher-education certificates on condition they participate in cultural, sports or developmental activities, Ghannouchi said.

Tunisia needs to do more to employ the estimated 30,000 to 40,000 university graduates who enter the job market every year, Julien Veron, frontier markets analyst at Investec Asset Management Ltd., said by telephone yesterday from Cape Town.

Unemployment in Tunisia is forecast to reach 13.1 percent in 2011 even as the economy grows 4.8 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund.

‘Sacrifice Democracy’

“Before these protests, the Tunisians were willing to sacrifice democracy for higher employment, but now, given the level of anger we have seen, they aren’t willing to do so,” Ayesha Sabavala, a Tunisia analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, said yesterday by phone in London.

President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on Jan. 10 blamed “outside powers and masked gangs” for the demonstrations.

“The protests started off locally, and were against unemployment, they were economic in nature, now they are about everything from corruption to lack of democracy, even to the president’s attempts to orchestrate a situation where he would be able to run for a sixth term by amending the constitution,” Sabavala said. “All these issues have to be addressed, at least for the president to stay to the end of his term in 2014.”

Ben Ali, in power since 1987, said on Jan. 10 that by the end of 2012 the government will provide jobs to all graduates who have been unemployed for two years, boosting the number of jobs created by then to 300,000. Provincial companies that recruit young people to fill at least 10 percent of their jobs will be exempt from taxes on profits, he said.

Officials Fired

The government dismissed the governor of Sidi Bouzid province on Dec. 30, one day after firing the communications minister over the crisis.

France’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bernard Valero, said yesterday that the situation in Tunisia, a former French colony, “calls more than ever for calm and dialogue.”

“The right to protest must be guaranteed just as much as the right to security,” Valero said in an e-mailed response to questions.

To contact the reporters on this story: Jihen Laghmari in Tunis at jlaghmari@bloomberg.net; Ola Galal in Cairo at ogalal@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mahmoud Kassem at mkassem1@bloomberg.net.

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