Tunisia Protesters Defy Curfew; Union Calls for General Strike

Troops were on the streets of Tunisia’s capital for a second day after protesters defied an overnight curfew imposed in response to unrest that has left at least 21 people dead since last month.

Police fired live rounds and teargas to disperse demonstrators who gathered in the Ben Arous district of Tunis as the curfew went into force at 8 p.m. Soldiers in armored vehicles guarded government offices, while schools, universities and most shops stayed shut after the curfew ended at 6 a.m. Authorities have yet to issue an official casualty toll from yesterday’s violence after Al Arabiya television said 10 people were killed in three cities in the North African nation.

The Regional Labor Union of Tunis, an umbrella group representing Tunis-area workers, called for a two-hour general strike tomorrow to protest the government’s policies, Zouhaier Maghzawi, a teachers’ union official, said in a phone interview.

The military deployment was the first in the center of the capital since the eruption of public dissent, a rare occurrence in Tunisia. The anti-government demonstrations began last month in the province of Sidi Bouzid after a 26-year-old man set himself on fire to protest unemployment.

The government will investigate the unrest and claims of corruption, and release people held during the protests, Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi told reporters yesterday in the capital. He also announced the firing of Interior Minister Rafik Belhaj Kacem, who will be replaced by Ahmed Friaa. Friaa, a professor, previously held the communications and housing portfolios.

Grants Planned

The government also 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.

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

The benchmark stock index fell 2.8 percent, to 4,593.88, as of 10:42 a.m. in Tunis, a four-day drop of 12 percent and the lowest in almost a year.

“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 the worst case. What country has achieved full employment?”

Jobs for Graduates

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.

“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.”

Tax Break

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.

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.

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