KASSERINE, Tunisia (Reuters) - Tunisian police firing tear gas clashed on Thursday with hundreds of protesters who set fire to police posts and tried to storm local government buildings in towns across the country in the largest protests since the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprising.
At least one policeman has been killed in three days of riots over jobs and economic conditions that amount to one of the most sustained tests to Tunisia’s stability since the revolt that toppled autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.
Several thousand youths demonstrated on Thursday outside the local government office in Kasserine, an impoverished central town where protests began this week after a young man killed himself after apparently being refused a public sector job.
Police fired tear gas to disperse protesters trying to storm local government buildings in several other towns including Sidi Bouzid, where youths chanted “Jobs or Another Revolution”, according to state media and local residents.
“I’ve been out of work for 13 years and I am a qualified technician. We are not looking for handouts, just our right to work,” protester Mohamed Mdini told Reuters in Kasserine, where crowds were angrily chanting: “Work, Freedom, Dignity”.
Protesters set fire to a police station in the town of Guebeli in southern Tunisia and officers abandoned another post in Kef in the northwest, the interior ministry said.
Later on Thursday night, the protests spread to the capital where rioters burned a small police post in the poor Tunis district of Cite El Intilaka and residents set alight tyres in the streets of Cite Ettadhamen district, a Reuters witness said.
This week’s events have evoked memories of the suicide of a struggling young market vendor in December 2010 that became a catalyst for Tunisia’s 2011 uprising, which in turn inspired mass protests across the Arab world.
Tunisia has since been held up as a model for democratic progress, with free elections and a modern constitution. It managed largely to avoid the violence that marred political upheaval in other countries.
“WORK, FREEDOM, DIGNITY”
But for many Tunisians, the revolution has not delivered on its economic promises, with the young in particular complaining about a lack of jobs and high living costs.
Three major Islamist militant attacks in Tunisia last year have also hit the economy, especially tourism which generates essential revenue and employment.
Unemployment stood at 15.3 percent in 2015, up from 12 percent in 2010, reflecting economic weakness, lower investment and a rise in the number of university graduates who account for one-third of jobless Tunisians.
Responding to the latest protests, Prime Minister Habib Essid’s office said he would return home early from a visit to the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos and would hold an emergency cabinet meeting before visiting Kasserine on Saturday.
President Beji Caid Essebsi said on Wednesday the government would hire more than 6,000 young unemployed people from Kasserine and start construction projects. On Thursday hundreds came to sign up for work, but tensions remained high.
“We’re not looking for gifts, just a chance,” said Mohamed Mdini, an electrician unemployed for 13 years in Kasserine. “We don’t have any hope left any more.”
Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Gareth Jones/Ruth Pitchford