Tunisia's president orders army to protect businesses from protesters
President Beji Caid Essebsi said on Wednesday that the army will protect the output from Tunisia's main resources from being disrupted by protests over social and labour issues.
"We know this is a serious decision but it must be taken," Essebsi said in a speech in the capital Tunis.
The Tunisian government has faced growing social discontent over the failing economy, especially interior regions, with protesters often staging sit-ins that block access to production sites.
"Any person who wants to demonstrate can demonstrate, within the framework of the law... But if you want to demonstrate and the first thing you do is to stop Tunisia's production... if you obstruct our few resources, where does that get us?" Essebsi asked.
"When [the demonstrators] get angry, they cut off roads. The roads belong to everyone and the state must face this," the president said.
He singled out the phosphate industry in the central mining region of Gafsa that had "come to a halt for five years".
"What do we have? We have phosphate, petrol and tourism, we have agriculture," including olive oil, he said. "The state must also protect the resources of the Tunisian people."
"That's why, taking all this into consideration... from now on the army will protect the sources" of Tunisia's production, the president said.
Essebsi said the army would put an end to roads being blocked.
"I warn you from now," that dealing with the military will become "difficult", he said.
The protesters are desperate for job opportunities and better living conditions in regions blighted by poverty in comparison with richer coastal cities.
They are also sceptical of a government economic reconciliation plan that would allow magnates accused of corruption under the overthrown regime of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to resume business activities.
In exchange, they would reimburse the state for ill-gotten gains.
Protesters have said that it is an effort to whitewash corruption, while the government claims it is a way to boost the atrophying economy.
Six years since a revolution that toppled longtime dictator, Ben Ali, Tunisia has not been able to resolve issues of poverty, unemployment and corruption that sparked the uprising.