Tunisia’s president took the unusual step Wednesday of ordering the army to protect businesses struggling because of weeks of protests over unemployment and corruption.
President Beji Caid Essebsi announced in Tunis that “the state must protect the people’s resources” after protests in Tunisia’s impoverished inland provinces in recent weeks. Sit-ins and other demonstrations have blocked roads and notably led to a halt in production at oil and phosphate facilities.
Essebsi said this “grave but necessary decision” was made at a top-level government security meeting. He insisted on the people’s freedom to demonstrate but said it must be “within the framework of the law.”
After extremist attacks and political violence in recent years, Tunisia is in a prolonged state of emergency that allows authorities to take exceptional measures such as sending in the army to assure security.
“The democratic process in Tunisia is seriously threatened,” the president said.
He argued that the Tunisian economy has lost 5 billion dinars ($2 billion) because of phosphate mine stoppages, worsening government debt.
The protesters are desperate for job opportunities and better living conditions in regions blighted by poverty in comparison with richer coastal cities.
They are also skeptical of a government economic reconciliation plan that would allow magnates accused of corruption under the overthrown regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to resume business activities, in exchange for reimbursing the state for ill-gotten gains.
Protesters say it’s an effort to whitewash corruption, while the government says it’s a way to boost the atrophying economy, which has yet to recover from the 2011 Arab Spring revolution that brought Tunisia democracy. The economy was further damaged by Islamic extremist attacks targeting tourists in 2015.
The president, a former ally of Ben Ali, also lashed out at political parties and other groups that are encouraging civil disobedience.