Tunisia Premier Promises Broad Economic Reform Amid Unrest 

Tunisian lawmakers approved cabinet changes proposed by Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi after riot police blocked protesters from nearing the assembly amid a rising wave of discontent in the birthplace of the Arab Spring.

On Tuesday, 11 new ministers proposed for departments ranging from health and justice to the interior obtained more than the minimum 109 votes needed in the 217-member assembly, state television reported. The number of ministries headed by women was reduced to one from eight previously.

“Tunisia’s youth is protesting in the streets and in front of parliament to remind us of our priorities,” Mechichi told the assembly in his closing remarks before the vote was held.

A few hours before the vote, small skirmishes erupted as protesters approached security cordons some distance from the assembly in the capital, Tunis, local media including Radio Diwan and Kapitalis reported. Demonstrators demanded the release of hundreds of people arrested in more than a week of protests over deepening poverty and unemployment in the North African nation.

Mechichi said the cabinet changes would help the government deliver on promises to cut the public payroll and subsidies, woo investors and create jobs.

While allowing that “we have yet to meet the people’s expectations,” he warned that violence and unrest would only obstruct reform efforts. Mechichi, who took office five months ago, is the nation’s 10th premier since its 2011 uprising.

Tunisia has struggled to make economic gains to match its democratic ones since mass protests toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali a decade ago, rippling across the region. Government infighting has hampered efforts to curb youth unemployment and corruption, drivers of the revolt, while terrorist attacks had slowed the key tourism industry even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit global travel.

Unrest also flared Tuesday in the central city of Kasserine, where a young man died this week from injuries his family say he sustained during earlier clashes with security forces.

Mechichi’s vows included better targeting subsidies to the neediest and facilitating more financing for projects by young Tunisians. The subsidy reform, set to be enacted in the second half of 2021, will ultimately lead to a 25% drop in poverty rates, he said.

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