TUNISIA: President warns protesters and reshuffles Cabinet amid demonstrations
Following political protest that swept across the nation for the last two weeks,Tunisian President Zine al Abidine Ben Ali began hurriedly shuffling his Cabinet in an apparent attempt to stave off anger over his autocratic rule and failed economic policies.
In a televised speech on Tuesday, Ben Ali promised more jobs for university degree holders but at the same time threatened to punish those taking part in the demonstrations.
"The use of violence in the streets by a minority of extremists against the interests of their country is not acceptable," the 74-year-old president said. "The law will be applied firmly against anyone resorting to violence and disorder."
The moves are part of Ben Ali's attempts to cool down national tempers and stave off further demonstrations against rampant unemployment and poor living conditions in the North African country.
Protests first began in the city of Sidi Bouzid, 165 miles south of the capital, Tunis, after a young man committed suicide to protest unemployment.
The death triggered violent clashes between young demonstrators and police forces that resulted in the death of an 18-year-old after National Guard members opened fire on angry protesters in a nearby town two days later.
Further marches and protests later spread to the capital and the cities of Sfax, Sousse and Meknassi.
Unemployment in Tunisia, especially among university graduates has always been a chronic liability to economic growth. Official figures state that 14% of the population are jobless.
New ministers for youth, communication, trade and religious affairs were appointed, according to Tunisia's official TAP news agency. Additionally. the leader announced an emergency program to create working opportunities.
Tunisia has been under the authoritarian rule of Ben Ali since 1987, when he orchestrated a peaceful coup to overthrow former President Habib Bourgiba.
In 2002, a constitutional referendum amended the upper age limit for Tunisian presidential candidates from 70 to 75 years old, allowing Ben Ali to be re-elected for a fifth term in office after winning near;y 90% of a 2009 presidential vote many dismissed as unfair.
-- Amro Hassan in Cairo
Photo: A demonstration against poor living conditions in the Tunisian capital on Dec.27. Credit: Agence France-Presse