Tunisian police have arrested 328 people after four nights of anti-austerity protests, Interior Ministry spokesman Col. Major Khelifa Chibani told state news agency TAP on Thursday.
At least one person has died since Sunday, when protests against an unpopular new Finance Act, which saw price hikes and VAT increases imposed from January 1, first broke out in the capital, Tunis, and across the country.
A synagogue was also attacked with a petrol bomb on Tuesday, in what authorities denounced as an act of vandalism linked to the protests, according to TAP.
Chibani told TAP that acts of vandalism and looting had fallen significantly on Wednesday night after security forces were deployed across the country. Police carried out raids to “arrest troublemakers and rioters involved in looting and stealing,” he said.
According to him, 21 security officers were injured and a dozen police vehicles damaged during the unrest.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed visited one of the affected areas, where he criticized the main opposition party backing the protests – the Popular Front – and said criminal networks were exploiting the unrest.
“The rioters, who take advantage of the tense situation to loot and ransack by using children, serve the networks of corruption and smuggling by pressuring the government to release them’, he said according to TAP.
He went on say they were linked to “irresponsible political parties, including the Popular Front.”
The Popular Front has called for peaceful protests to overturn the Finance Act.
A new anti-austerity youth movement – named Fech Nestannow, which translates as “What are we waiting for?” – has called for nationwide protests Friday, including a large one in Tunis.
“We are used to social movements being demonized in Tunisia,” Henda Chennaoui, a founding member of the movement, told CNN. “The government’s tone is just like that of the previous regime. Instead of listening to us, the government is criminalizing us and treating us as if we are vandals and thieves.”
Tunisia’s 2011 revolution was the first in the region and the North African country is hailed as the success story of the Arab Spring. However, deep economic woes, several terror attacks and a struggle with extremism have slowed recovery.
Dr Lise Storm, senior lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, told CNN that many people were suffering real hardship but that the government had to act.
“What people are protesting about is something that’s painful but needs to happen,” she said. “Tunisia really needs painful economic reform.”