Could Tunisia's unemployment protests turn into another revolution?

Could Tunisia's unemployment protests turn into another revolution?
The Tunisian government announced a series of measures to calm protesters demanding jobs on Wednesday, but will they be enough?
3 min read
21 January, 2016
Protest erupted in the capital Tunis in solidarity with Kasserine [AFP]

Tensions are running high in Tunisia only a few days after the fifth anniversary of the country's popular revolution that inspired the "Arab Spring".

Popular anger and resentment at soaring unemployment levels has been growing in Tunisia's poorest communities, raising fears of an explosion of protests similar to those that ousted former president Zine El Abedine Ben Ali five years ago.

The latest protests started in the city of Kasserine when Ridha Yahyaoui, an unemployed 28-year-old, climbed atop a power pole near the governor's office and was electrocuted.

Yahyaoui was protesting after his name was removed from a list of hires for public sector jobs.

His death sparked angry protests by local unemployed youths and forced the government to sack a provincial official accused of being responsible for the removal of Yahyoui's name from the list of hires.

However, protests erupted again on Tuesday after another unemployed youth scaled up an electric tower and fell.

Protesters attempted to storm the governorate building and clashed with security forces who fired tear gas to disperse the crowds.

"The protests erupted in all the major neighbourhoods in Kasserine and the police confronted them with force," local activist Mohammad Nasri told The New Arab.

Tunisian authorities on Tuesday declared a curfew in Kasserine in an attempt to control the situation in the city of around 80,000 inhabitants. However, the protests and clashes resumed on Wednesday.

Late on Wednesday, government spokesman Khaled Chouket announced a series of measures for Kasserine, including the creation of 5,000 new jobs and the allocation of over $65 million to build 1,000 social homes.

The government's swift response and reconciliatory measures reflect the serious threat posed by the protests if they went unaddressed, particularly since protests erupted in the capital Tunis and other towns in Kassrine province in solidarity.

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi on Wednesday acknowledged "the current government inherited a very difficult situation" with "700,000 unemployed and 250,000 of them young people who have degrees."

Unemployment rates had risen to 15.3 percent by the end of 2015 compared with 12 percent in 2010, driven by poor economic growth and a decline in investment in both public and private sectors coupled with a rise in the number of university graduates, who now comprise one third of jobless Tunisians.

We cannot deal with situations like this by statements or a helping hand. You have to give it time
- Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi

"But (...) we cannot deal with situations like this by statements or a helping hand. You have to give it time," Essebsi said.

Kassrine alone has 28,000 unemployed youth including 9,000 who are university graduates.

Protests by unemployed people have been commonplace since the Tunisian revolution in 2011, but the scale of the recent protests that coincide with others around the country with similar demands, make them significant.

Youths in Meknassy and Bouziane in Sidi Bouzid province blocked main highways and set tires alight as they demanded employment on Tuesday.

Gradates in Gafsa have been on hunger strike for 16 days demanding to be hired by the ministry of education.

The scenes of anger across Tunisia are reminiscent of December 2010, when demonstrations broke out in Sidi Bouzid, near Kasserine in central Tunisia, after a fruit-seller self-immolated to protest harassment and unemployment.

Violent protests spread across the country, building into a massive popular movement that eventually forced Ben Ali to step down on 14 January, 2011.

The Tunisian government seems aware of the volatility of the situation in many of the country's cities, which is presumably why it has been so responsive to protesters in Kasserine.

However, the number of unemployment protests across the country signals that Tunisian youths are beginning to lose their patience after five years of empty promises.