Tunisia’s new Islamist-led government, broadened to include independents to defuse unrest after the assassination of an opposition leader, began work on Thursday pledging to tackle grave economic woes before elections later this year.
The new leadership got a reminder of the volatile discontent it is grappling with when Adel Kehdri, an unemployed 27-year-old man, died on Wednesday after setting himself on fire to protest at economic and social hardships.
Mr. Kehdri’s act recalled the self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, whose death in December, 2010, ignited popular upheaval in Tunisia that toppled dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and then spread across the Arab world.
New Prime Minister Ali Larayedh replaced Hamadi Jebali, a fellow leader of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party who quit after the Feb. 6 murder of secular politician Chokri Belaid ignited the worst violence in Tunisia since Mr. Ben Ali’s overthrow.
A formal ceremony at the Kasbah Palace inaugurated the new government, which will lead the North African state until elections expected toward the end of this year.
Mr. Larayedh’s cabinet retains two junior secular coalition members from the previous government but Ennahda gave some key ministries to independents to quiet critics who say Tunisia’s relatively secular society is under threat from Islamist hardliners.
Mr. Larayedh said the government’s mission – steps to ease an official 17-per-cent unemployment rate and high inflation – would be difficult but he was “confident of success.”
The economic and social problems that fuelled Tunisia’s 2011 uprising have yet to be solved and often spark unrest. Feuding politicians have missed deadlines to produce a new constitution and set dates for parliamentary and presidential elections.
The malaise worsened when Mr. Belaid was shot dead in broad daylight in what the Tunis authorities said was an attack by Salafi Islamist militants. Ennahda denied any involvement but mass protests erupted, often targeting the party.
Hundreds demonstrated again on Thursday during Mr. Kehdri’s funeral in the town of Jendouba, shouting anti-government and anti-Ennahda slogans and demanding attention be paid to their economic difficulties.
Mr. Kehdri, who set himself ablaze in the centre of the capital Tunis on Tuesday, was the latest of several Tunisians to emulate Mr. Bouazizi’s self-immolation in desperation over daily hardships.
The government this month raised most fuel prices for the second time in six months, lifting petrol levies by 6.8 per cent, and slapped a 1-per-cent tax on monthly salaries above 1,700 dinars ($1,075 U.S.) to help fund remaining fuel and food subsidies.
Taxes on alcohol were also increased this month and the state-controlled milk price was put up a few weeks ago.
The Tunisian Organization for Consumer Protection has called for protests on Friday against the fuel price hike and high inflation and thousands of people are likely to turn out.
Taxi drivers plan a one-day walkout on Monday while petrol station owners have announced a three-day strike in April, saying higher fuel prices will spur petrol smuggling from Libya.