Tunisia protests: Reforms announced amid new rallies

media caption, The government is seeking to calm days of unrest

The Tunisian government has announced a wave of social reforms, reacting to days of demonstrations by anti-austerity protesters.

There were fresh protests on Sunday, the seventh anniversary of the ousting of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Emergency government meetings have been held in response to the protests, which have seen more than 800 arrests.

President Beji Caid Essebsi visited a district of Tunis on Sunday, saying he understood the people's suffering.

Protesters have taken to the streets again following calls from opposition parties.

They argue conditions have not improved since Ben Ali was deposed as president at the start of the so-called Arab Spring uprisings.

When did the protests begin and what caused them?

Demonstrations began on 7 January after the government raised value-added tax and social contributions, and increased some prices on goods in its 2018 budget.

Rallies have taken place in at least 10 different areas.

On Sunday, hundreds of people poured into one of the flashpoints of the 2011 uprising, Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis.

media caption, Some anti-austerity protests have turned violent in recent days

Demonstrators also rallied outside the offices of the UGTT union, demanding the budget be abandoned and venting anger at price rises.

Last week saw a wave of protests, some of which turned violent after dark.

The government accused demonstrators of setting fire to police cars and attacking officials. Some people tried to take over shopping malls and stores, while others blocked roads.

In the town of Thala, near the Algerian border, the army was called in on Wednesday after protesters burned down the national security offices and police were forced to retreat.

Interior ministry spokesman Khlifa Chibani said on Saturday that 803 people had been arrested so far on suspicion of violence, theft and looting.

He said 97 members of the security forces had been injured, but did not say how many protesters had been hurt.

Demonstrators accused police of a violent crackdown.

What are the reforms being promised?

The announcement came after two hours of crisis talks at the presidential palace that included President Essebsi, political parties and trade unionists.

image source, AFP/GETTY
image caption, Political parties, unions and employers met on Saturday for crisis talks amid protests

Officials said plans had been submitted to parliament to reform medical care, housing and increase aid to the poor.

Social affairs minister Mohammed Trabelsi said the government proposed increasing welfare payments to those in need by 170m dinars ($70m; £50m).

"This will affect about 250,000 families. It will help the poor and middle class," he said.

Mr Trabelsi also alluded to plans for guaranteed medical care and housing reform.

What did Mr Essebsi say on Sunday?

He visited the marginalised Tunis district of Ettdhamon, opening a youth centre there.

In a short and informal speech, he promised to address youth unemployment and highlighted the government's move to help poorer families, saying: "We feel for you, these are our families."

But he also said: "Be modest, your country does not have a lot of means."

What is Tunisia's economic situation?

Tunisia has been struggling economically since Ben Ali was ousted after more than 20 years in power.

That revolution was sparked by high unemployment and worries about corruption.

Seven years on, some of the same problems remain.

Youth unemployment stands at more than 35%, the UN's International Labour Organisation says.

Terror attacks that hit the country's vital tourism industry have helped knock its currency down 60% since 2011. Inflation is at a three-and-a-half-year high, with the price of meat and other foods rising by more than 10% annually.

In December 2017, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) told Tunisia it needed to take "urgent action" and "decisive measures" to reduce its deficit. The IMF gave the country a $2.9bn (£2.2bn) loan in 2015.

Ben Ali, who lives in exile in Saudi Arabia, was convicted in absentia by a Tunisian court in 2011 of embezzlement and misuse of public funds and sentenced to 35 years.

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