Middle East

Tunisia plans social reforms after wave of anti-austerity protests

The Tunisian government on Saturday announced a social reforms package aimed at improving care for the needy and increasing access to health care following a wave of anti-austerity protests.

Social Affairs Minister Mohamed Trabelsi said the measures increase monthly benefits to low-income families from roughly €50 per month to €70 ($85). In total, the social reforms package, which requires parliamentary approval, will amount to an increase of 170 million dinars (€56 million/$69 million).

“This will concern about 250,000 families,” Trabelsi said. “It will help the poor and middle class.”

The announcement comes after Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi met with labor unions, political parties and companies to discuss anti-austerity protests triggered by tax increases that kicked in January 1.

“We discussed the general situation in the country and the reforms, especially socioeconomic, that must be adopted to overcome the current problems,” said Wided Bouchamaoui, who heads the UTICA employers’ federation.

Commemorating a revolution

The announcement comes the day before the seventh anniversary of anti-government protests that led to the ouster of longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and triggered the so-called Arab Spring, a revolutionary wave of demonstrations across North Africa and the Middle East.

Protest organizers have called for mass demonstrations to mark the anniversary, saying the nine governments since then have failed to rectify their demands for economic liberty and social justice.

However, Tunisian authorities have been swift to quash anti-government protests. Interior Ministry spokesman Khlifa Chibani on Saturday said more than 800 people had been arrested on suspicion of engaging in violent acts during the week’s protests, including rioting and looting.

On Friday, police used tear gas to disperse a crowd of demonstrators protesting in the Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid, considered the epicenter of the Arab Spring in 2011.

In December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, his family’s sole breadwinner, set himself on fire to protest the confiscation of his fruit cart by police. The event triggered demonstrations across the country, which eventually spread to others in the Arab world.

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