Tunisian President Warns ISIL is Seeking to Exploit Unrest

Protests erupted in Tunisian cities of Tunis, Sidi Bouzid and Gafsa against rampant unemployment-the largest public demonstration to be seen since the toppling of former President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. Tunisian President, Beji Caid Essebsi, has warned that members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in neighbouring Libya may take advantage of the unrest to enter the country on the occasion of the anniversary of the 2011 revolution.

Protests and clashes in Kasserine ensued on Saturday, after an unemployed man was electrocuted on the top of a power pole near the Governor’s office. He was protesting after being rejected from a series of positions within the Department of Education and died from his injuries. Solidarity rallies were held in Tunis, Sidi Bouzid and Gafsa on Thursday as reports of other suicide cases emerged. On Friday, Essebsi said that the government would put a programme in place that would lower the unemployment rate as it had spurred protests in impoverished regions of the country.  He said that more than 5,000 jobs would be provided to people in Kasserine and promised an investigation into allegations of corruption. The next day, the Minister of Finance stated that the President’s announcement was slightly misunderstood and that 5,000 unemployed people would be given job training instead.

Essebsi expressed sympathy for the protesters and declared that demonstrations were ‘natural’ as “there is no dignity without work… You can’t tell someone who has nothing to eat to stay patient”. Ironically, unemployment has worsened since Ben Ali was toppled. Authorities have also failed to resolve issues of social exclusion and poverty whilst facing a growing jihadist threat. Essebsi mentioned that there were ‘dirty hands’ involved in the unrest after Tunis declared a nationwide curfew that went from 8pm to 5am. “We have more than 700,000 unemployed, among them 300,000 youth who have qualifications and cannot find a job. And they are being targeted by outside forces, ISIL and others,” Essebsi stated. The curfew was imposed due to the “danger to the security of the state and its citizens”, the interior ministry highlighted in a statement. The curfew, though, exempts night-shift workers and people needing urgent medical care.

Roxanne Farmanfarmaian, a lecturer at Cambridge University, told Al Jazeera that Essebsi’s comments were typical of the “authoritarian type of leadership in the Middle East” as he blamed ‘outside forces’. “This uprising is perhaps helping to focus the mind of those who have supported Tunisia as being the beacon of Arab democracy… I think we are coming to see that for a democracy to be established, it is not quite as easy as everyone thought. And a very important part of that is to ensure that the youth in particular who are on the streets and helped put Essibsi into the job he has today, that they are given some answers and some jobs.” Mr Essebsi won the election in 2014 after campaigning as a former political statesman capable of restoring prosperity. However, several lawmakers in his party, Nidaa Tunis, have denounced suggestions indicating that he is grooming his son to succeed him. The electoral loss would threaten the Party’s dominance in Parliament and would put the Islamist Ennahda party as a forerunner.

France has agreed to provide $1.1bn over five years to assist Tunisia’s transition to democracy. President Francois Hollande stated on Friday, “One of the main objectives of the plan is to help disadvantaged regions and youth, by acting strongly on jobs.” An unemployed protestor in Kasserine, Barhoumi Tareq, said Tunisians “are united against discrimination and marginalization”. “We have suffered for decades,” he told Al Jazeera. “We don’t feel like we belong to this country because government officials – they don’t care about us”. Tunisia’s 2011 revolution was sparked when Mohamed Bouazizi, 26, a street vendor, fatally self-immolated in response to police harassment. The post-revolution transition period has brought uncertainty, economic instability and sporadic political violence.