Tunisia's President Beji Caid Essebsi on Wednesday ordered the army to protect phosphate, gas and oil production facilities after protests aimed at disrupting output broke out in the south of the country.
It is the first time troops in Tunisia will be deployed to protect industrial installations that are key to Tunisia's economy. Protests, sit-ins and strikes in recent years have cost the state billions of dollars.
For several weeks, about 1,000 protesters in Tatouine province, where Italy's ENI and Austria's OMV have gas operations, have been demanding jobs and a share in revenue for the area's natural resources.
Protests have also broken out in another southern province, Kebili.
Deployment of troops
Six years after its Arab Spring uprising bought democracy, Tunisia is trying to enact sensitive reforms to help growth, but many unemployed youth in the marginalized south still feel they have gained few opportunities.
The military deployment will take place immediately, Essebsi said.
“It is a serious decision, but it must be applied to protect our resources,” he said in a speech to the nation. “Our democratic path has become threatened and law must be applied but we will respect freedoms.”
A local resident in the southern Metaloui region — the heartland of Tunisia's phosphate production — said troops in trucks arrived on Wednesday and started setting up barbed wire barricades around facilities.
OMV has taken out around 700 non-essential staff and contractors from its operations in the south there as a precaution, and Perenco and Canada-based Serinus Energy have either halted some production or closed gas fields.
Small oil and gas producer
Tunisia is a small oil and gas producer compared to its OPEC neighbors Libya and Algeria, with production around 44,000 barrels per day.
Protests that have hit the phosphate sector in past years cost the country more than $2 billion, according to officials. But production there has returned to the highest levels since 2010 after officials negotiated deals with protesters.
The government expects to double its phosphate production to 6.5 million tons in 2017.
Tourists beginning to return
Tourism, another key earner for the government accounting for about 8 percent of GDP, was badly hit by two Islamist militant attacks on foreigners in 2015. Bookings are returning and officials expected 30 percent tourism growth this year.
Protests often flare up in the southern and central regions of Tunisia, where in December 2010 a young street vendor set himself on fire in desperation, triggering the revolution weeks later that ended the rule of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and spread across the region against other autocratic regimes.
While Tunisia's democracy has advanced with free elections and a new constitution, the economic malaise and frustrations that helped spark the 2011 uprising still simmer in parts of the country where development and jobs are scarce.