By Roula Khalaf in London
Published: January 9 2011 10:11 | Last updated: January 9 2011 10:11
Rioting by unemployed Tunisian youths left at least 14 people dead at the weekend, as the small north African country, held up by the west as a model of stability, enters a fourth week of unrest.
The violence in Tunisia came as the government in nearby Algeria pledged to cut taxes and import duties on staple foods after violent clashes triggered by soaring prices spread across the country last week, killing at least two people and injuring hundreds.
The turmoil in North Africa has underlined a growing social malaise among Arab youth in a region where more than 60 per cent of the population is under the age of 25 and economic growth has failed to keep up with the demand for jobs.
The Tunisian government said 14 people had died in clashes with security forces in the western towns of Thala and Kasserine since Saturday and insisted that police had acted in self-defence when a crowd attacked a government building using petrol bombs and stones.
But one opposition party leader, Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, said the death toll reached 20 over the weekend, according to the AFP news agency. Union activists also reported a higher death toll than that provided by the government.
Tunisia, where the government tolerates no dissent and any form of public protest is rare, has been wracked by riots since December when a young man set himself on fire after police confiscated his stall of fruit and vegetables because he did not have a permit.
The US state department last week summoned the Tunisian ambassador to Washington to express concern over the ability of people to protest as well as the government’s alleged attempts to interfere with the internet.
A country that often wins high marks from international organisations for its economic reforms and the promotion of an export-based economy, Tunisia has failed to generate sufficient economic growth to absorb a rising number of university graduates. Observers said the turmoil also reflected disenchantment over a lack of freedom and perceptions of widespread and high level corruption.
Popular protests are far more frequent in Algeria, a hydrocarbon rich country that has been emerging from a long and brutal civil strife. But the speed at which the unrest spread last week alarmed the government and brought back memories of the crisis of 1988, when riots led to hundreds of deaths and forced sweeping political changes.
After days of silence, the Algerian government reacted on Saturday, saying that prices of sugar and cooking oil would be reduced 41 per cent and custom duties on sugar imports would be suspended. The government said global food price costs had contributed to price rises but it also accused local distributors of exacerbating the problem.
The Tunisian crisis has moved online, with activists bringing down government sites and the regime facing accusations of disrupting Facebook accounts.
Amnesty International condemned the crackdown this month. “The Tunisian authorities have a responsibility to maintain public order but this should be no excuse to target people simply peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly,” said the human rights group.