Ben Ali warns demonstrators, promises jobs
By Jamel Arfaoui for Magharebia in Tunis – 11/01/11
The Tunisian government on Monday (January 10th) ordered the indefinite closing of all schools and universities in a move to calm tensions, which escalated over the weekend into new deadly riots in Tala, Kasserine and Regueb.
At least 35 people were killed in the protests, according to the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH). The actual toll could be as high as 50, FIDH chief Souhayr Belhassen said.
As of press time, however, the government had confirmed 14 deaths, describing the protestors as "isolated individuals whose goal is to sabotage the country's facilities". The interior ministry said the security forces "were acting in self-defence".
In a speech to the nation on Monday evening, Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali railed against protestors, while promising to create new jobs.
"Efforts will continue to employ the largest possible number of unemployed university graduates," Ben Ali said.
"This effort will also cover university graduates whose period of unemployment exceeds two years before 2012, yes, before 2012, and I undertake to do that. In this way, the total employment capacity during this period will increase to 300,000 new job opportunities."
However, the president also said, "The events were the work of masked gangs that attacked at night government buildings and even civilians inside their homes in a terrorist act that cannot be overlooked."
"To those who want to undermine the interests of this country or deceive our young people and sons, by pushing them to riots and chaos, we clearly say that the law will be the decisive factor," Ben Ali added.
Still, the president's speech failed to satisfy critics.
"We were disappointed, as the speech was not up to the expectations in view of the serious situation. We need urgent measures, the most important of which is to stop shooting at the direction of protestors," said Ahmed Brahim, Secretary-General of the opposition Ettajdid Movement.
"We support the enforcement of law that is implemented fairly. At the same time, we need urgent political solutions that would release freedoms and open dialogue with the representatives of different political parties and civil society," Brahim added.
Demonstrations broke out December 18th in Sidi Bouzid after Mohamed Bouazizi set himself aflame after his unlicensed vegetable and fruit stand was confiscated by authorities. Bouazizi died last week from his burns. His death aggravated the protests and they later extended to the city of Kasserine.
The Progressive Democratic Party also issued a statement, demanding that the interior ministry hold accountable those responsible for killings, put an end to the causes of tension, and open serious dialogue with different parties and national organisations.
There needs to be "just development, end to corruption and fair distribution of country's wealth", according to Abid Briki, a member of the executive bureau of the Tunisian General Labour Union.
Government reaction draws international condemnation
Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon voiced concern over the security situation in Tunisia and called for restraint, dialogue and respect of the freedom of expression.
"We deplore the violence and the death of civilians. We express our sympathy to the families of the victims," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and EU Commissioner for enlargement Stefan Fule said in a joint statement on Monday.
"We call for restraint in the use of force and for the respect of fundamental freedoms. In particular, we call for the immediate release from detention of bloggers, journalists, lawyers and other detained people who peacefully demonstrated in Tunisia," the statement said.
Responding to accusations of excessive force, Communications Minister Samir Laabidi told Al Jazeera that "authorities are now reviewing their development options and the message of protestors has been communicated".
"It's about time all the entities concerned put hand in hand," Tunisian Businessmen Union chief Hadi Djilani said on Friday. "What we are doing today, and what we are urging businessmen to do, is not a charity, but a necessity that owners of enterprises will discover its positive points," he said, adding that his organisation would work on employing 50,000 university graduates.
Djilani said, "We are against short-term appointments that don't guarantee integration for job seekers. There is no sense in hiring an employee and paying him/her a salary that doesn't exceed 150 dinars."
"Although the recent measures are important, I don't believe that they will put an end to the anger of protestors, especially unemployed people," Economic and Social board member Adel Kadri told Magharebia.
"They should have quickly announced the creation of an unemployment fund that enables unemployed people to receive monthly payments that guarantee them minimum human dignity while waiting for jobs." Kadri then added: "More importantly, the appointments should take place in a transparent way, whereby jobs would be obtained by those who deserve and need them more."
In her turn, Raoudha Seibi, MP representing the Social Liberal Party, said that results of measures that were taken by the authorities "will not be seen overnight".
"Therefore, we have to wait and see," she said, while calling on certain entities that she didn't name to "stop taking advantage of young people's issues to achieve political gains".
"We know that the problem of unemployment is a problem facing all world countries," Salem Badiri, an unemployed university graduate told Magharebia. "However, the officials should at least listen to us and understand our concerns. This is what we are asking for. As to contempt and procrastination, we reject that."
In her turn, Nadia Belhaj, an unemployed young woman in her 20s, said, "I no longer care about my unemployment. My only concern now is for these clashes and the fall of victims to stop."
Private industry offers hope
Last week, the largest Tunisian dairy company rushed to build a centre in Sidi Bouzid province with an investment estimated at 25 million dinars, which may be raised to 30 million dinars. The facility is expected to start production in early 2013.
Additionally, American-owned MASS Group Corporation will construct a cement plant in the province, according to Rasheed Fatini, head of the advisory council at Sidi Bouzid Business Centre.
"This project, which will not be restricted to the manufacture of cement, but will also produce different construction materials, has an estimated cost of 280 million euros (500 million dinars)," Fantini said. "The initial labour force is estimated at 1,000 job opportunities, and it has a phased execution plan."
According to official statistics, the Tunisia unemployment rate is about 14%, with 78,000 university graduates applying to employment offices every year.
On January 5th, a ministerial cabinet meeting approved a plan to develop border areas, including the provinces of Jendouba, Kef, Kasserine and Gafsa, with a cost of 2.5 billion dinars. This is in addition to a plan for the development of desert areas in the provinces of Gabes, Medenine, Tataouine, Kebili and Tozeur, with a cost of about 2.85 billion dinars.
At the end of last December, the government announced that it would pump about 5 billion dinars into development plans for different areas to reduce the rate of unemployment.
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