See also:
» 24.03.2011 - How cyber-activism lent savvy to North African protests
» 27.02.2011 - 84-year-old is new PM in Tunisia
» 27.02.2011 - Tunisia PM Ghannouchi resigns
» 26.02.2011 - Tunisia police attacks large protest march
» 23.02.2011 - Exodus from Libya; foreigners targeted
» 05.02.2011 - Tunisia govt improves rights situation
» 01.02.2011 - Tunisia freedoms still not secured
» 31.01.2011 - EU freezes Tunisia dictator's assets

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Politics | Society | Human rights

Tunisia dictator seriously challenged

Protesters in the Tunisian capital, clashing with police forces

© FIDH/afrol News
afrol News, 13 January
- President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, ruling Tunisia since 1987, for the first time faces a serious challenge to his authoritarian power as demonstrators defy the curfew and hit back at the police.

The current wave of demonstrations was unleashed when a young street vendor from Sidi Bouzid committed suicide on 17 December following the confiscation of his merchandise by the authorities. In four weeks, the protest movement has spread beyond Tunisia's socio-economically disadvantaged central region, reaching the capital, Tunis, and other towns across the country.

By now, daily clashes between protesters and Tunisian security forces have claimed over 60 lives, according to the local UGTT trade union, which openly has expressed sympathy for the protests. Tunisian authorities, meanwhile, put the number of deaths at 21 persons.

The defiance of orders by the protestors is remarkable for Tunisia - a country where relatively large social gains have kept citizens accepting a total lack of democracy ever since independence in 1956.

In the capital, Tunis, large crowds this night ignored government's curfew and large security forces trying to enforce the curfew. In several poor communities, protesters attacked police forces and several persons were injured in the battles. Unconfirmed reports claim at least eight protesters were killed.

Even more remarkable, in the southern city of Gafsa, large crowds of protesters yesterday evening even managed to gain the upper hand and were able to chase away the police force, according to eyewitnesses. The protests however ended in the looting of several shops in central Gafsa.

The protest movement, growing in strength from day to day, started as a social upheaval last month. It rapidly ignited the large masses of young unemployed Tunisians. Despite strong economic growth and a robust social programme, a high unemployment rate has remained a key problem, especially for young Tunisians and even for the country's well educated youths.

President Ben Ali has always been aware of the large potential of social unrest due to unemployment, having in mind similar developments in neighbouring Algeria. His government therefore always has given large priority to social gains and employment generation, in addition to repressive policies towards trade unions, potential opposition movements and the press.

These policies now are seen to have failed. The relative independence shown by the UGTT trade union during the protests has also come as a surprise to President Ben Ali, wh

Posters of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali are seen everywhere in Tunisia

© Stewart Morris/Flickr/afrol News
o now sees an opposition movement flocking around the trade union.

The UGTT in a statement this week boldly expressed "solidarity with the people of Tunisia" and supported the call for "a development model guaranteeing equal opportunities, the right to decent work, and job opportunities providing a stable income capable of meeting their needs."

President Ben Ali on Monday - in a unique show of weakness - made some concessions to the protesters. In a public speech, he pledged to create 300,000 jobs in 2011 and 2012 to curb unemployment. But at the same occasion, the President described the protests as "terrorist acts".

But meanwhile, the nation-wide protests are widening their appeal and scope. For the first time, this week, protesters in Tunis and other cities were calling for the retirement of President Ben Ali. Protesters were chanting slogans attacking the President and his family. The social protest movement is showing signs of becoming a broad anti-government and democratisation movement.

Timely, also Tunisian human rights activists - which for decades have been violently oppressed by the regime - are joining and defending the protest movement. Protests against the heavy-handed treatment of the demonstrations, including the use of sharp ammunition, are articulated. There are demands for the respect of human rights in Tunisia.

Yesterday again, President Ben Ali was forced to back down from his most repressive policies. He announced the sacking of the unpopular Interior Minister, Rafik Belhaj Kacem, implicitly making him responsible for the killing of protesters. In addition, President Ben Ali ordered the release of those detained so far during the unrest.

The continued unrest this night all over Tunisia demonstrated that the small concessions made by President Ben Ali are not enough for the population. On the contrary, the bold attack on security forces may indicate that the President's concessions are seen as a sign of his weakness and that he may lose control of the situation.

As the protests follow their own dynamics, the Ben Ali regime is facing its toughest challenges ever. The outcome of the protests still is open and the downfall of the Ben Ali regime cannot be ruled out. But there are no obvious leaders that could lead the protest movement and take over for President Ben Ali.

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