Tunisia’s President Beji Caid Essebsi has ordered the country’s army to do what is necessary to protect businesses amid widening protests against poverty and unemployment.
Essebsi said during a speech in Tunis on Wednesday that the "grave but necessary decision" of asking the army to intervene in protests was made at a top-level government security meeting.
He said "the state must protect the people's resources" as protesters in Tunisia's impoverished inland provinces become increasingly vocal in their demands for jobs and better living conditions. Demonstrations and sit-ins staged in recent weeks have led to a halt in production at Tunisia’s oil and phosphate facilities as protesters continue to block roads in those areas.
Essebsi said continued protests had cost the government five billion dinars (about two billion dollars), especially due to the stoppages of phosphate mining, adding that the situation had worsened the country’s debt.
The Tunisian president also said the protesters had the right to freedom of demonstration but that right must be exercised "within the framework of the law."
Essebsi has faced criticism over a decision that could allow businesses that were shut down during the 2011 revolution to resume activity if they reimburse the government for illegal gains they had made during the reign of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The Tunisian leader says that the measure is necessary to boost an economy that has yet to fully emerge from years of unrest and major terrorist attacks that have also affected tourism.
The president, a former ally of Ben Ali, also criticized political parties for encouraging what he described as "civil disobedience." "The democratic process in Tunisia is seriously threatened," Essebsi said.