TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian police firing tear gas clashed with hundreds of protesters in at least four separate towns on Tuesday after demonstrations broke out to demand employment just days after a young jobless man committed suicide.
The protests erupted in Kasserine, where the young man killed himself, apparently over the lack of job opportunities, residents said, and later spread to three other towns or cities in the country’s impoverished central, southern region.
Tunisia’s “Arab Spring” uprising in 2011 was sparked when a struggling young market vendor committed suicide, unleashing a tide of anger among the young, unemployed that eventually forced longtime autocrat leader Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali to step down and flee the country.
“Security forces chased the protesters in the streets of the city and fired tear gas,” Hatem Salhi, a witness in Kasserine, told Reuters by telephone.
Hundreds of unemployed protesters had gathered in front of the headquarters of the Kasserine governorate, where some threatened to commit suicide, prompting tear gas salvoes by security forces to scatter them, witnesses said.
The Interior Ministry later announced a night-time curfew in Kasserine as a preventative measure. But clashes continued into the night there and spread to the other cities of Tahla, Fernana, Meknasi, according to TAP state news agency.
Protesters chanted: “Work, freedom and dignity,” according to one resident. In Meknasi, groups of young men took to the streets and set alight tires in solidarity with protests in Kasserine, said Mahdi Horchani, a local resident.
The unrest in Tunisia sparked the revolutions that transformed the Arab world. But while countries such as Libya and Syria have been torn apart by violence and civil war, Tunisia avoided the worst of the chaos and remains relatively stable.
Despite democratisation since the toppling of Ben Ali, many Tunisians worry about unemployment, high living costs and the ongoing marginalisation of rural towns - all factors that helped fuel the 2011 uprising.
Unemployment in the North African country had risen to 15.3 percent by the end of 2015 compared with 12 percent in 2010, driven by weak economic growth and a decline in investment in both the public and private sectors coupled with a rise in the number of university graduates, who now comprise one-third of jobless Tunisians.
Kasserine is among Tunisia’s most impoverished areas, with its highest regional unemployment at about 30 percent.
Residents and local media said Ridha Yahyaoui, the jobless man who committed suicide, killed himself after local authorities refused to accept his request for a post in the public sector. Authorities had no immediate comment.
On Tuesday, the main UGTT union and largest industry association struck a deal to increase wages for about 1.5 million private-sector employees, a decision that could avert strikes and protests. The UGTT had threatened a general strike if Tunisia’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry refused to raise wages.
Government officials and business leaders say social tensions, strikes and demonstrations have led dozens of local and foreign companies to pull out of Tunisia since 2011.
Editing by Patrick Markey, Mark Heinrich and G Crosse