TUNIS – Tunisian security forces were on high alert on Thursday following a third consecutive night of protests that have become increasingly widespread amid rising public discontent over a series of economic austerity measures and tax hikes imposed by the government in a bid to slash the deficit.
Although less violent than the previous demonstrations, Wednesday night’s rallies were more widespread, incorporated working-class neighborhoods in the industrial belt of the country’s capital Tunis and were marked by an increased deployment of police, while the Interior Ministry downplayed reports that it had imposed a curfew.
“The objective (of increased police presence) is to guarantee security, especially around security barracks, police stations and public buildings to avoid acts of sabotage, pillage and robbery,” a ministry spokesperson told EFE.
There were several reports of protesters attempting to breach public offices, while others were seen trying to burn tires and other objects in the street, leading to tense stand-offs with police who, in turn, fired tear gas canisters to disperse the crowds.
Tunis has been the scene of low-scale demonstrations over the course of the last year but the rallies intensified and became restive at the onset of 2018, when the government imposed austerity measures to meet terms set by International Monetary Fund creditors, who have urged the Tunisian executive to balance the books on an estimated $2.9 billion loan.
Tuesday saw a notable uptick in the violent protest, including looting, after news broke that a 55-year-old demonstrator had died at the hands of the police during a nighttime rally in the city of Tebourna, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of the capital.
The unrest has prompted a blame game between Tunisian politicians, with the coalition government accusing the opposition Popular Front of organizing the protests.
The Popular Front, which is socialist, disassociated itself with any acts of violence but said it supported peaceful protest aimed at pressuring the government to drop its austerity package.
According to the interior ministry, some 565 people have been arrested across the country, of which 328 were detained Wednesday night, while 60 police officers have been injured in clashes.