Protesters booed Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed off stage during a town hall meeting in a southeastern region that has been shaken by protests and a general strike.
Six years since a revolution ignited by grievances over joblessness, corruption and perceived marginalisation of the country’s periphery, Tunisia has again witnessed a wave of protests.
Chahed and several government ministers arrived in Tataouine on Thursday to find the town closed down by a general strike. The market, banks and shops in the town centre were shut and burned tyres lay in some streets – evidence of barricades erected during the protests of recent weeks.
The prime minister met representatives of civil society and announced measures to develop the region, which many locals claim is marginalised.
“Tataouine’s right to development is not a favour,” he said in a town hall speech, promising measures to create 2,000 jobs in the region “almost immediately”.
But some of those attending the meeting shouted him down.
“Our young people have just two choices: Drown in the sea or set themselves on fire,” one woman said.
Her comment was a reference to clandestine migration and to young stallholder Mohamed Bouazizi, who self-immolated in December 2010, protesting unemployment and police harassment.
His death a month later sparked the first of the so-called Arab Spring uprisings and brought down longtime president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Chahed’s speech was soon drowned out.
“Give us what we’re owed by right,” a man shouted, before the crowd started chanting a slogan from the 2011 uprising: “Work! Freedom! National dignity!”
The prime minister was finally forced to leave amid the boos of a crowd gathered outside the governorate building.
A hundred-strong crowd gathered outside the room where the discussions were held, chanting “we will not back down” and “resign”.
Tunisia’s social affairs minister, Mohamed Trabelsi, told AFP news agency that the situation had been “tense” but that “we had to talk to these people”.
Demonstrations opposing proposed bill
Chahed’s visit came ahead of expected demonstrations over the Economic Reconciliation Bill proposed by President Beji Caid Essebsi.
Tunisia’s parliament on Wednesday debated the bill that would grant amnesty to businessmen accused of corruption during Ben Ali’s rule.
It has already been delayed by two years due to popular opposition.
The bill would protect those accused of corruption from prosecution. In exchange, they would be required to return the money they extracted.
But government officials see the “economic reconciliation” law as a way to inject funds into an economy still recovering after the 2011 revolt that ousted Ben Ali.
Critics, however, are calling for protests over what they call an amnesty for criminals.
The bill was proposed by Essebsi, himself a former Ben Ali official, and sent to parliament in 2015.