January 13, 2018 / 1:45 PM / a month ago

Tunisia will increase aid for poor in response to protests

TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia plans to increase support for poor families and needy people by some $70 million, a government minister said on Saturday, after protests broke out in the North African country.

Protests, some of them violent, were held on Monday against austerity measures such as increases of tax and prices imposed by the government to cut a budget deficit.

The government will increase aid for poor families and needy people such as pensioners by 170 million dinars ($70.3 million), Mohamed Trabelsi, minister of social affairs, told reporters.

“This will concern about 250,000 families,” he said. “It will help the poor and middle class.”

Activists and the opposition have called for fresh protests on Sunday, the seventh anniversary of the toppling of autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, the first leader to fall in the 2011 “Arab Spring” protests that swept the region.

President Beji Caid Essebsi will on Sunday visit the poor district of Ettadhamen in the capital Tunis hit by protests to give a speech and open a cultural center, an official said. He has never visited the district before.

Protesters shout slogans against rising prices and tax increases in Tunis, Tunisia January 13, 2018. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

On Saturday, several hundred protesters took to the streets in Sidi Bouzid, a central town where the 2011 uprising erupted after a young man set himself on fire following the confiscation of his fruit cart by policemen demanding bribes.

The fresh protests draw on anger over price and tax increases included in this year’s budget that took effect on Jan. 1.

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The main labor union and Islamists, who co-rule with secular forces, had demanded an increase in aid for poor families after the protests began.

The government has blamed the opposition and “troublemakers” for stoking unrest, a charge the opposition has denied.

Almost 800 people have been arrested for vandalism and violence such as throwing petrol bombs at police stations, the interior ministry said on Friday.

Prices have increased for fuel and some consumer goods, while taxes on cars, phone calls, the internet, hotel accommodation and other items have also gone up.

Tunisia has been hailed as the only democratic success of the Arab Spring: the one Arab country to topple a long-serving leader in that year’s uprisings without triggering widespread violence or civil war. Tunisian politicians were awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for achieving non-violent change.

But Tunisia has had nine governments since Ben Ali’s overthrow, none of which have been able to resolve deep-rooted economic problems. The economy worsened since a vital tourism sector was nearly wiped out by a wave of deadly militant attacks in 2015, and has yet to recover despite improved security.

Reporting by Ulf Laessing and Tarek Amara; Editing by Alexander Smith and Ros Russell

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