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Tunisia holds emergency state meeting over unrest

Government officials meet to discuss latest wave of protests as overnight curfew brings relative calm after days of clashes
A young Tunisian who tried to commit suicide is carried by onlookers to get medical help in the central Tunisian city of Kasserine on 22 January 2016 (AFP)

Tunisia's Prime Minister Habib Essid held an emergency cabinet meeting on Saturday after authorities declared a nighttime curfew nationwide following the worst outbreak of social unrest since the 2011 revolution.

Essid met his defence and interior ministers before the cabinet session, as AFP journalists reported relative calm in towns rocked by clashes between protesters and police in recent days.

"Security-wise, it has started to stabilise," interior ministry spokesman Walid Louguini told AFP, echoing Essid's comments on Friday that the situation had been brought "under control".

Five years after the overthrow of longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, street demonstrations against unemployment and poverty have again shaken the North African nation.

In a televised address to the nation on Friday, President Beji Caid Essebsi expressed understanding for the frustrations vented in impoverished regions of central Tunisia.

But he warned against "ill-intentioned hands" exploiting the legitimate grievances of demonstrators.

Anger erupted over the death on 16 January of Ridha Yahyaoui, a 28-year-old unemployed man who was electrocuted when he climbed a power pole while protesting in the central town of Kasserine.

The unrest spread around the country, including to Tunis, where shops were burnt and looted in one suburb, prompting the interior ministry on Friday to impose a 8:00 pm to 5:00 am curfew.

Housseni Kalai, a former resident of Kasserine, recently told Middle East Eye that the government's actions would only make the protesters more defiant.

"People here want jobs, want a decent life. The government’s biggest mistake is trying to solve the unemployment in the region with temporary solutions like giving money or seasonal work instead of creating new industries and projects," said Kalai. "We no longer believe the government's promises, it has been five years now."

Kalai, a symbolic figure who set fire to his body a few days after Mohamed Bouazizi famously did the same back in 2011, is now living in Tunis receiving treatment for his third-degree burns.

Calm returned to Kasserine on Saturday morning after a day of clashes.

In the nearby town of Sidi Bouzid, the cradle of the 2011 uprising, teenagers set fire to tyres but the streets were mostly quiet.

Authorities arrested 261 people over the unrest and 84 for violating the curfew on Friday, the interior ministry said.

France on Friday pledged one billion euros ($1.1 billion) in development aid to Tunisia over the next five years, after Essid held talks with French President Francois Hollande.

While Tunisia is considered a rare success story of the Arab Spring uprisings, the authorities have failed to resolve the problems of social exclusion and regional inequalities.

Tunisia also faces militant violence that has devastated its vital tourism industry.

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