Fresh protests in Tunisia on anniversary of Arab Spring uprising

Protesters have lit flares and shouted anti-government slogans on the seventh anniversary of the Arab Spring uprising. Anti-austerity rallies have slammed a government decision to raise taxes amid an economic slump.

Hundreds of people gathered in the Tunisian capital, Tunis, on Sunday to protest against austerity and unemployment on the seventh anniversary of the country's democratic transition of power. Some protesters shouted slogans against the government while holding flares.

State security forces set up blockades in front of entrances to Habib Bourguiba Avenue, where many people rallied at the site widely associated with the 2011 toppling of the country's former dictatorship.

Read more: Seven years after Arab Spring, Tunisia's future uncertain

The powerful UGTT labor union and several political parties, including the opposition Popular Front alliance, had earlier called for the demonstrations to coincide with the anniversary of the beginning of the Arab Spring revolutions.

President Beji Caid Essebsi marked the anniversary by visiting a youth center in a working-class suburb of Tunis that had witnessed vandalism and looting earlier in the week.

Weeks of unrest

Anti-austerity protests and nighttime unrest have rocked Tunisia since Monday, after the government announced tax hikes and increases in social security contributions at the beginning of January.

One protester has been killed, more than 100 police officers have been injured and over 800 people arrested, according to the Interior Ministry.

The government on Saturday announced financial aid for the poor and free access to health care for unemployed people. The announcement followed meetings between the president and several labor unions, political parties and companies.

Read more: Opinion — Is Tunisian democracy in danger of collapse?

Marking the Arab Spring

Tunisia is widely viewed as the only successful country to transition to democracy as part of the 2011 protests that helped spark revolutions around the Middle East and North Africa.

Tunisia's transition began after the deadly self-immolation of a street vendor in Tunis to protest against police harassment in late 2010.

Subsequent demonstrations led then-President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia on January 14, 2011, after 23 years in power.

Although Tunisia went on to adopt a new constitution and hold free elections, multiple governments have struggled to improve the economy after deadly terrorist attacks harmed the country's vital tourism sector in 2015.

Official figures put unemployment at 15 percent nationwide and above 25 percent in certain regions. Some experts have estimated inflation to be over 9 percent.

Read more: Is there a trade-off between a strong economy and democracy?

Tunisians protest austerity measures

Increasing anger

Tunisians have held rallies across the country to protest the government's new austerity measures, aimed at minimizing the country's deficit. The Tunisian people have become increasingly angry since the government said it would increase the price of petrol, some goods, and taxes on cars, phone calls, the internet, hotel accommodation and other items from January 1.

Tunisians protest austerity measures

One protester dead

One protester died in unclear circumstances in Tebourba, a town 40 kilometers west of the capital Tunis. The Interior Ministry said that the 43-year old male was not killed due to police violence, but an autopsy would be carried out to determine the cause of death.

Tunisians protest austerity measures

'Nothing to do with democracy'

Interior Ministry spokesman Khelifa Chibani said 44 protesters were arrested for carrying weapons such as knives, setting government buildings on fire and robbing stores. "What happened had nothing to do with democracy and protests against price hikes ... Yesterday protesters burned down two police stations, they looted shops, banks and damaged property in many cities," Chibani said.

Tunisians protest austerity measures

Opposition to increase protests

The leader of Tunisia's main opposition party Popular Front, Hamma Hammami, said they would step up protests until the government changed its "unjust" 2018 budget. "Today we have a meeting with the opposition parties to coordinate our movements, but we will stay on the street and we will increase the pace of the protests until the unjust financial law will be dropped," Hammami said.

Tunisians protest austerity measures

Tunisia's economy in crisis

Tunisia's has been in economic crisis since 2011, when the Arab Spring uprising unseated the government. Two major militant attacks in 2015 also greatly damaged the country's tourism industry, which made up eight percent of gross domestic product. Many people face unemployment, with official figures put the unemployment rate at around 15 percent.

amp/cmk (AFP, AP, dpa)