(Pictured: President Ben Ali and his wife Leila Trebelsi.)
Meanwhile, the protests which started nine days ago deep in Tunisia’s interior continue. The protests were triggered by a young unemployed university graduate, Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself aflame after his unlicensed vegetable and fruit stand was confiscated by authorities in the city of Sidi Bouzid, in central Tunisia. Bouazizi’s fate resembled that of many Tunisian youths, educated but with few job opportunities before them. The dramatic and tragic image of a young man aflame shattered the myth of the ‘Tunisian economic miracle’ and in its own way, what little legitimacy Zine Ben Ali’s rule seemed to enjoy both domestically and internationally.
For a moment it appeared the protests would die down, but instead they re-ignited throughout the Tunisian interior, including in Kairouan, Gafsa, Redeyef, Meknassy, Bouzayane and have been going on for more than a week now. In many places these became violent clashes between what seems to be Tunisia’s youth, much of which is both educated and unemployed and the authorities. Where will the cataclysm of violence the country is experience end? The casualties are mounting.
- In Menzel Bouzayane, some 35 miles from Sidi Bouzid, more than 2.000 people participate, protesting unemployment and poor social conditions. According to Agence France Presse, violent confrontations between protestors and authorities resulted in the death of an 18 year old, Mohamed Ammari, shot in the stomach by the police. Another 10 protestors were wounded, and two policemen were sent to the hospital unconscious. Shortly thereafter, the police station was burnt down
- According to a communiqué issued by the Tunisian Press Agency (TAP) the Tunisian Interior Ministry affirmed that the locomotive of a train and three national guard vehicles were also set on fire and that the national guard headquarters in the same town Menzel Bouzayene was overwhelmed by protestors forcing the defenders to respond with live ammunition.
- Back in Sidi Bouzid, another unemployed university graduate, in an act of solidarity with Mohammed Bouazizi, electrocuted himself by reaching out to a 30,000 volt electric line on top of a lamp post. Below was a large crowd protesting unemployment in front of the offices of the Tunisian trade union federation UGTT.
- In all these cases round ups and arrests have been made, reports of repression, beatings and torture – with photo evidence – mounting daily
- Then starting on December 23 and 24, the protests began to spread beyond the interior with support demonstrations Tunisia’s major coastal cities of Sfax, Sousse and even the capital, Tunis.
- As the protests and confrontation spread, the local police and national guard could no longer contain the situation and in several cases, the Tunisian army was brought in an attempt to keep both the news of the protests, and the protests themselves, from spreading nationwide.
News of the disturbances, which began on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, have also spilled into the European media, this despite the fact that, given Tunisia’s status as a ‘friendly police state’, as one commentator calls it, it often escapes the human rights scrutiny reserved for countries like Iran or China.
But now we’re beyond that and stories about the Tunisian events are popping up worldwide. After demonstrations in the capital, Tunis on December 27, media coverage increased.
French media outlets — Agence France Presse, Liberation, Le Monde, Figaro — all have run stories, as has CNN, Al Jazeera (including in English), with news outlets in Canada as well as the USA (Washington Post, LA Times) running short, but disturbing, articles. The list goes on. This is the kind of publicity the Ben Ali regime hoped to avoid at all costs (and mostly has avoided up until now).
The speed, the intensity, nay, the violence of the protests, the number of young Tunisians willing to commit suicide or face down the police shooting live ammunition rather than face a bleak future, caught the government of Zine Ben Ali in Tunis off guard. At first there was no response. Then the government claimed the protests were isolated incidents orchestrated by a cynical and unappreciative opposition. But a week into the protests, their tune has changed to a more sober one, trying to sympathize with the victims (at least the unemployed university graduates) and promising economic reform and jobs programs with a government representative sent to Sidi Bouzid to promise such changes in the future.
Rob Prince is the publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.