[QODLink]
Features
Political ambiguity breeds violence
As politicians fight over what shape the new Tunisia might take, suspicious acts of violence wreak havoc.
Last Modified: 07 Mar 2011 16:50

The mass euphoria that followed the toppling of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has quickly yielded to the musty fog of uncertainty that has descended upon Tunisia's political landscape. 
Tunisians are split into two general camps: the 'revolutionaries' who refuse to rest until every last relic of the old regime has been stripped away, and the 'reformers' who fear the country is edging toward political and economic crisis. 
"There's a big discussion underway between those that are concerned that genuine revolution be realized, and those that are really concerned that the power vacuum will lead to chaos," says Michael Willis, a lecturer at Oxford University's School of Oriental Studies.
The 'revolutionary' group includes an informal alliance of Islamists, trade unionist and far-left groups, while the 'reformers' include centre-left opposition parties, conservatives, former allies of Ben Ali and independents who have stepped into the political sphere for the first time. 
Lurking on the shadows, both groups say, are Ben Ali loyalists poised to profit from any ambiguity to re-establish their political might. Each side accuses the other of being infiltrated by former members of the recently disbanded RCD (Constitutional Democratic Rally) party.
While there are clearly manipulations going on, Willis says, both parties have legitimate concerns.
"Every time any structure is put in place, there are calls for it to be removed and overthrown. Yet there are concerns that rolling chaos and rolling demands will just gut the system," he says.
The interim government that was to chaperon the country to its first genuinely democratic elections has seen its authority eroded in a matter of weeks by continuing economic and social contestation by the revolutionary camp, forcing members of the government to quit. 
Mohamed Ghannouchi stood down from his role as prime minister on Sunday after protests in the capital calling for his resignation turned violent and five people were killed. Ghannouchi had been prime minister under Ben Ali’s rule.
His resignation was rapidly followed by five other members of the government, including the last remaining members of the former president’s Constitutional Democratic Rally party (RCD). http://english.aljazeera.net/news/africa/2011/03/201131134458332348.html
 
Particularly foreboding for the prospects of Tunisia’s democratic transition, however, was the resignation of two leading representatives of Tunisia’s centre-left opposition. Najib Chebbi, who resigned on Tuesday from the role of regional development minister, is the founder of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), while Ahmed Ibrahim, head of the Ettajdid Movement, quit his post as higher education minister. 
Both politicians had been prominent critics of Ben Ali and were untainted by links to the former regime.
Ahmed Bouazzi, a member of the executive committee of the PDP, told Al Jazeera that Chebbi had resigned because he was concerned about the political uncertainty and the government's ceding of power to a "strange alliance" of union activists, Islamist parties including Rachid Ghannouchi’s http://english.aljazeera.net/news/africa/2011/02/2011233464273624.html pro-democracy al-Nahda movement and the smaller, more conservative Tahir party, and a range of Marxist and Leftist groups. 
"Since the government is too weak, they give the opposition, especially the trade union, everything that they demand," Bouazzi says.
He added that this was especially ironic given that the national union (UGTT) leadership had worked closely with Ben Ali, and only became involved in the protest movement on the eve of his fall from power.
One of the concessions won by the union movement is that all members of the interim government would be barred from running as candidates in future elections – a factor which forced Chebbi and Ibrahim to resign, Bouazzi says. 
The country’s centre-left parties fear that the combination of uncertainty over the upcoming elections and the insecurity caused by the ongoing protests is going to lead to a scenario where the military could take power.
“Since these people are using violence in the street, maybe this will pave the way for the army,” he said.
A town pillaged
The state of limbo reaches far beyond the capital. 
Kasserine is the town that sacrificed the most lives during the uprising. The massacres that happened in this central Tunisian town played a crucial role in pushing the middle classes of Tunis out onto the streets.
In the weeks after Ben Ali fell, the people of Kasserine were avidly hopeful that the sacrifices they had made for the revolution would lead to concrete changes.
That after decades of neglect by the state and tyrannical bullying by its petty agents, their thirst for jobs, decent employment conditions, government investment and freedom would finally be quenched. 
[PHOTO SLIDESHOW TO GO HERE]
On Friday afternoon, those aspirations were dealt a titanic blow. The town was engulfed by three days of burning and looting by gangs of youths, which began on Friday.
“Many people threw stones and used knives to terrorise the people of Kasserine,” Basma Askri, a local lawyer, said.
She said nothing comparable to the recent chaos had happened during the uprising.
Most of the town’s public buildings, many commercial properties and some homes were destroyed. No lives were lost, but the physical damage to the town far exceeded anything that had occurred during the uprising. 
They hit the central police station and the national guard first, and moved on to the government finance office, the regional customs office and the council for central and western development. Computers and office equipment were stolen from the Tunisian Solidarity Bank. Schools were also targeted, although the community managed to protect some buildings. Some shopkeepers were wounded by looters armed with knives, while others used cement to seal their businesses off. 
 [USE PHOTO OF SHOP WITH GRAFFETI : ‘I swear by God that it’s empty’]
Mohamed-Salah Omri, a lecturer at Oxford’s Faculty of Oriental Studies originally from Kasserine, says that no more than a couple of hundred people had participated in the violence over the weekend, which the vaste majority of the town strongly opposed.
The rampage caught the town just when morale had been high. It caught the locals by surprise, he says. 
“There was a certain consensus that the town was looking up,” he explains. “The security situation was good and people dropped their guard.”
Many of the local figures that had taken a defacto leadership role since the uprising began were in Tunis last Friday for the sit-in at the Casbah, he notes, so there was a vacuum when the violence began.
Deliberate strategy?
The unrest began during the midday prayer on Friday in the poor neighbourhood of Ezzouhour, where protesters had been slain by snipers in mid-January. 
A local imam brought politics into his sermon, several sources who had been present told Al Jazeera. [NAME?]
A project to construct a research hospital in the Kasserine was being moved to Gafsa, the imam misleadingly told worshippers, and the wealthy seaside town of Monastir would be receiving sizable government investments.
In a town starved of any kind of government attention, this was a sure way to rouse resentment. 
“He said that to make people angry. It’s not his role to talk politics; he said some very disturbing things,” a local business owner, speaking anonymously for his own protection, said.
Though the imam had been a post-Ben Ali appointee, he is reputed to be close to local members of the RCD. 
“These people want to create regional rivalries. They don’t want Tunisia to be free and democratic,” the source said. 
Sources said that there had been several people on the streets spreading similar rumours about projects going to other towns to the groups of youths who are habitually congregate on the town’s streets.
With so much social and political uncertainty, in addition to the endemic unemployment that had been one of the core reasons for the spread of the uprising in December, the man said it is easy to incite the town’s restless youth to protest. 
“A few rumours are enough to start a protest right now,” another young man said. “It was well-organised.”
The interior ministry also said that the protest was provoked by deliberate misinformation and urged Tunisians “not to fall for such warped rumours, which aim at destabilising the country and fermenting trouble and disorder,” in a statement issued on Friday. 
Anger at army
In Kasserine and the rest of the country, the army has been hugely popular after its commander-in-chief, Rachid Ammar, reportedly refused to fire on protesters. Given acute public mistrust in the police, who are perceived as reminders of Ben Ali’s repression, the army has played an important role in keeping the peace. 
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/25/world/africa/25tunis.html?_r=1
Yet after Friday, the people of Kasserine have begun questioning the army for the first time. 
Several sources in Kasserine affirmed that the violence on Friday happened under the watch of the military, and that the soldiers failed in their duty to protect important public buildings.
That most police fled ahead of the protesters at the main police station does not surprise locals.
“Police sit around having coffee, they do nothing,” one man said. 
Yet there were soldiers present when many of the buildings were attacked, but they failed to intervene, several sources said.  
“The crowd headed straight for the police station and the army didn’t stop them,” another man said. “There are still limits on their intervention.” 
Sources said locals had asked the military to leave for the first time on Saturday, because of their perceived failure to protect the town. 
A video sent by one source appears to confirm the incident. It shows locals confronting soldiers: [EMBED]
“Yesterday they burgled the bank and where were you?
“When they stole the weapons [from the police station], where were you?
"Coward, collaborator, Trabelsi [reference to Leila Ben Ali's family]."
Neji Zairi, a spokesperson for the interior ministry, said that the police had done their best in difficult circumstances. 
"What can they do? There were thousands of people who were trying to invade the police building. You can't always resort immediately to bullets and risk killing people," he said.
Omri says that while the people of Kasserine do not generally suspect the army of being complicit in the unrest, the problem lies in the lack of clarification over the army's role in domestic affairs – at both the local and national level. There has been no official statement made by the defence ministry.
The spokesperson for the defence ministry was unavailable to discuss the matter when contacted by Al Jazeera.
Based on the perception that the army has, in many ways, taken over the police’s role of law enforcement, people in Kasserine are questioning why the army played such a “passive” role, Omri explains.
"I don't think people know what the army's rules of engagement are," he says. "There has been nothing has been in the public domain."
Reaching out
On Saturday, the army sent reinforcements to the town, and worked with police to arrest people suspected to have instigated or carried out the rioting. Helicpoters surveyed the streets from above, while patrols of soldiers and tanks monitored things on the ground.
"It's a complete turnaround in the state of the soldiers," one man says. 
Several local businessmen, a lawyer, a school principal and politicians were sent to Tunis for questioning, the interior ministry confirms. 
The imam is at large but is wanted for questioning. 
"These are important people, all have links to the RCD," Omri says.
A car filled with thousands of dinar in cash fuelled suspicions that youths were to be paid for having participated in the looting. 
"Police agents have arrested the people who were paying the individuals who committed the violence and criminal acts," Neji Zairi says.
Security forces also arrested youth identified as having participated in the rampage from videos that have been posted to Facebook, sources say. 
In an attempt to rebuild the trust that had been lost during the rampage, a military commander held an exceptional meeting with locals on Monday to better explain the army’s mandate, Al Jazeera learned.
The commander called on Kasserine's civil society to help calm the tensions, and said the military had prevented a group from breaking into the local prison on Sunday, as well as the attempted sabotage of a nearby factory.
Implications
The campaign of destruction in Kasserine is one of many suspicious cases that are contributing to wider fears that former regime heavyweights still have the capacity to wreak havoc, whether at the local or the national level. 
The month of February was marked by a series of strange incidents that served to remind Tunisians that that the fruits of their uprising are far from ripe. 
In his resignation speech, Ghannouchi warned Tunisia's "silent majority" that they must remain vigilant against the attempts to undermine their “revolution”.  
"A plot is being instigated against the Tunisian peoples' revolution," Ghannouchi cautioned. "There is a minority who want to make the revolution fail and a majority who are apathetic."
In his parting word to the nation, he called on Tunisia's silent majority to counter those conspiring against their revolution. More than 100 people implicated in looting, terrorism and other acts of violence – who, he alleges, had "infiltrated" the otherwise peaceful protest - have been arrested. Investigations are underway to establish the details of what appears to have been an orchestrated operation. 
"Who is behind the operation on avenue Habib Bourguiba [during the protest on Friday] and all this cycle of violence?" he asked. 
Witnesses from Kasserine say that records in the public buildings were completely destroyed.
"These people went straight to the public buildings, where there were very important papers which could have been used as proof against them," a small business owner says. 
For Omri, what happened in Kasserine was part of a pattern that has emerged in post-uprising Tunisia of mob psychology being manipulated to achieve political ends. He said the trend is unlikely to be the work of a single group, but rather individuals operating at the local level. 
"For some it's just an opportunity to loot and break, for others it's a cover for something else. And that's been happening across Tunisia," he says.
Everyone in Kasserine interviewed by Al Jazeera was opposed to the spate of attacks that took place last weekend. 
"The people of Kasserine, we want things to be calm, we want investment and progress," one man says, a comment that appears to reflect the general viewpoint.
This "silent majority" achieved the spectacular feat of having its voice heard during uprising, but is fast losing its voice in the noise of post-Ben Ali Tunisia.
LEGITIMACY
WALLED UP IN THEIR HOMES

Tunisia vibrated with palpable euphoria in the days after mass protests forced Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to decamp to Saudia Arabia.

A few short weeks on, utopic expectations of a sweeping break with the old regime are colliding with concerns that the country is edging towards political and economic crisis.

"There's a big discussion underway between those that are concerned that genuine revolution be realised, and those that are really concerned that the power vacuum will lead to chaos," says Michael Willis, a lecturer at Oxford University's School of Oriental Studies.

Tunisians are split into two general camps: what might be called the 'idealists,' who refuse to rest until every last relic of the old regime has been stripped away, and the 'realists'' who fear that, however imperfect and in need of reform the existing institutions may be, instability and lack of governance could open the way for either the military or the barely-ousted regime to take power. 

The idealist group includes a tactical alliance of Islamists, trade unionist and far-left groups, while the reformers include centre-left opposition parties, conservatives, former allies of Ben Ali and independents who have stepped into the political sphere for the first time. 

Until the deadlock between the two sides is bridged, the country is floating in a state of limbo.

Lurking in the shadows, both groups are quick to say, are Ben Ali loyalists poised to profit from any ambiguity to re-establish their political might. Each side accuses the other of being infiltrated by former members of the recently disbanded RCD (Constitutional Democratic Rally) party.

While there are clearly manipulations going on, Willis says, both sides have legitimate concerns.

"Every time any structure is put in place, there are calls for it to be removed and overthrown. Yet there are concerns that rolling chaos and rolling demands will just gut the system," he says.

Mohamed Ghannouchi stood down from his role as interim prime minister last Sunday, after protests in the capital calling for his resignation turned violent and five people were killed. Ghannouchi had been prime minister under Ben Ali since 1999.

Particularly foreboding for the prospects of Tunisia’s democratic transition was the resignation of two leading representatives of Tunisia’s centre-left opposition; Najib Chebbi, the founder of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), and Ahmed Ibrahim, the head of the Ettajdid Movement. 

Both politicians had been prominent critics of Ben Ali and were untainted by links to the former regime.

Follow Al Jazeera's coverage of the
turmoil in Tunisia

Ahmed Bouazzi, a member of the executive committee of the PDP, tells Al Jazeera that Chebbi had resigned because he was concerned about political uncertainty and the government's ceding of power to a "strange alliance" of union activists, Islamist parties, including Rachid Ghannouchi's pro-democracy al-Nahda movement and the smaller, more conservative Tahir party, and a range of Marxist and Leftist groups. 

"Since the government is too weak, they give the opposition, especially the trade union, everything that they demand," Bouazzi says.

He adds that this was especially ironic given that the national union (UGTT) leadership had worked closely with Ben Ali - including Abdessalem Jrad, the UGTT's secretary-general - and only became involved in the protest movement on the eve of his fall from power.

Many things may have changed in the new era, but there are reminders of the past. People who tried to attend a protest calling for Jrad's resignation were intimidated by supporters of the union on Saturday.

"In the post-Ben Ali Tunisia, repression continues," writes Selim Slimi, a journalist who was severely beaten outside the union headquarters by its members as he tried to report on the protest.

The country’s centre-left parties fear that the combination of uncertainty over the upcoming elections and the insecurity caused by the ongoing protests is going to lead to a scenario where the military could take power.

"Since these people are using violence in the street, maybe this will pave the way for the army," Bouazzi says.

Beji Caid Essebsi, who came out of retirement to take the role of interim prime minister after Ghannouchi's resignation, has the advantage of having no direct links to the Ben Ali regime.

While the 87-year-old who served as a minister in President Habib Bourguiba's government may not be fresh blood, Essebsi is viewed as a more palatable figure to oversee the country's democratic transition, and promised to form a new interim government within days. The government was announced on Monday. 

A town pillaged

The malaise reaches far beyond the capital, penetrating into the impoverished centre-west of the country where the protest movement began.

Shops in Kasserine were closed because of the looting last weekend.'I swear by God it's empty,' the owner of this shop has written [Photo courtesy of a man in Kasserine]

In Kasserine, the town that sacrificed the most lives during the uprising, a sudden eruption of violence has dealt a severe blow to expectations that the new political dawn would rapidly bring postive changes to the region.

Hopes that thirst for jobs, decent employment conditions, government investment and freedom would finally be quenched have been overtaken by a state of fear, after the town was engulfed by three days of burning and looting by gangs of youths.

Mohamed-Salah Omri, a lecturer at Oxford’s Faculty of Oriental Studies who is originally from Kasserine, says that no more than a couple of hundred people had participated in the violence over the weekend and that the vast majority of the town strongly opposed it.

The rampage caught the town just when morale had been high, he says. "There was a certain consensus that the town was looking up," he explains. "The security situation was good and people dropped their guard."

The rioters hit the central police station and the national guard first, and moved on to the government finance office, the regional customs office and the council for central and western development. Schools, banks and small businesses were looted.

"They threw stones and used knives to terrorise the people of Kasserine," says Basma Askri, a local lawyer, adding that the recent wave of destruction was far worse than anything that happened during the uprising.

Most of the town's public buildings, many commercial properties and some homes were destroyed, although no lives were lost. More than a week later, many of the shops are still closed.

A 'deliberate strategy'

Sources in the town say the unrest was sparked by false rumours that a project to construct a research hospital in Kasserine was being moved to Gafsa and that the wealthy seaside town of Monastir would be receiving sizable government investments. In a town long starved of government attention this roused resentment.

Several people who attended a sermon in a poor neighbourhood of Ezzouhour, where protesters had been killed by snipers in mid-January, say an imam there had helped spread the rumour. "He said that to make people angry. It's not his role to talk politics; he said some very disturbing things," a local business owner, speaking anonymously for his own protection, says.

"These people [spreading the rumours] want to create regional rivalries. They don't want Tunisia to be free and democratic."

With so much social and political uncertainty, in addition to the endemic unemployment that was one of the issues behind the December uprising, another young man explained that it is easy to incite the town's restless youth.

"A few rumours are enough to start a protest right now," he says, adding that "it was well-organised."

The interior ministry also says that the protest was provoked by deliberate misinformation and urged Tunisians "not to fall for such warped rumours, which aim at destabilising the country and fermenting trouble and disorder," in a statement.

Witnesses from Kasserine say that records in the public buildings were completely destroyed in acts, unlike the wider looting, that seemed planned and calculated.

"These people went straight to the public buildings, where there were very important papers which could have been used as proof against them," the business owner says.

Anger at the army

One indication of how much the people of Kasserine have been shaken by the latest unrest is the effect it has had on their relationship with the army. Hugely popular since its commander-in-chief, Rachid Ammar, reportedly refused Ben Ali's demand to fire on protesters during the unrest, the army had won the respect of the town where the worst massacres occured.

But several people in Kasserine say the events of last week happened under the watch of the military and that soldiers stood passively as buildings were burned and robbed.

"The crowd headed straight for the police station and the army didn’t stop them," one man says. "There are still limits on their intervention."

Because of their perceived failure to protect the town, angry locals asked the military to leave for the first time last Saturday, sources say.

People of Kasserine express their anger at the army's failure to prevent the violence

A video sent to Al Jazeera shows locals confronting soldiers:

"Yesterday they burgled the bank and where were you?

"When they stole the weapons [from the police station], where were you?

"Coward, collaborator, Trabelsi [reference to Leila Ben Ali's family]."

Neither has the incident improved the locals' low opinion of the police.

Neji Zairi, a spokesperson for the interior ministry, says that the police had done their best in difficult circumstances and had little choice but to flee as the protesters approached. "What can they do? There were thousands of people who were trying to invade the police building. You can't always resort immediately to bullets and risk killing people," he says.

Omri says that while the people of Kasserine do not generally suspect the army of being complicit in the unrest, the problem lies in the lack of clarification over the army's role in domestic affairs. Police have lost some of their authority to the army, he notes, and may have expected the soldiers to take over in dealing with the youths. "I don't think people know what the army's rules of engagement are," he says.

The spokesperson for the defence ministry was unavailable to discuss the matter when contacted by Al Jazeera. But the ministry did issue a statement on Tuesday which, though it did not refer directly to Kasserine, appeared to be a response to criticisms, denouncing what it termed a campaign to discredit the army, "which has valiantly resisted to protect the revolution since its beginning, to defend the state institutions, protect individuals, preserve public and private property against acts of vandalism and looting and to safeguard the republican regime".

Reaching out

The army quickly sent heavy reinforcements to the town, and worked with police to arrest people suspected to have instigated or carried out the rioting. Helicpoters surveyed the streets from above, while patrols of soldiers and tanks monitored things on the ground, with the assistance of a small number of police.

"There's been a complete turnaround in the attitude of the soldiers," one man says.

The interior ministry confirm several local businessmen, a lawyer, a school principal and former members of the local government were sent to Tunis for questioning. The imam is at large but is wanted for questioning.

Soldiers arrest man in cash-filled Mercedes in Kasserine on Saturday

"These are important people, all have links to the RCD," Omri says.

A car filled with thousands of dinar in cash fuelled suspicions that youths were to be paid for having participated in the looting.

"Police agents have arrested the people who were paying the individuals who committed the violence and criminal acts," Neji Zairi says.

In an attempt to rebuild the trust that had been lost during the rampage, a military commander held an exceptional meeting with locals on Monday to better explain the army's mandate, Al Jazeera learned.

The commander called on Kasserine's civil society to help calm the tensions, and said the military had prevented a group from breaking into the local prison on Sunday, as well as the attempted sabotage of a nearby factory.

Implications

The campaign of destruction in Kasserine is one of many suspicious cases that are contributing to wider fears that former regime heavyweights still have the capacity to wreak havoc, especially since local and national authorities are weakened by the battle for legitimacy.

The month of February was marked by a series of strange incidents that served to remind Tunisians that that the fruits of their uprising are far from ripe. The interior ministry is investigating alleged cases of instigating violence in the capital, Sidi Bouzid and El Kef, as well as last week's incident in Kasserine.

In his resignation speech, Ghannouchi warned Tunisia's "silent majority" that they must remain vigilant against the attempts to undermine their “revolution”. 

"A plot is being instigated against the Tunisian peoples' revolution," Ghannouchi cautioned, on his final night as prime minister. "There is a minority who want to make the revolution fail and a majority who are apathetic."

For Omri, what happened in Kasserine was part of a pattern that has emerged in post-uprising Tunisia of mob psychology being manipulated to achieve political ends. He says the trend is unlikely to be the work of a single group, but rather individuals operating at the local level.

"For some it's just an opportunity to loot and break, for others it's a cover for something else. And that's been happening across Tunisia," he says.

Source:
Al Jazeera
Topics in this article
Country
Organisation
Featured on Al Jazeera
Italy struggles to deal with growing flood of migrants willing to risk their lives to reach the nearest European shores.
Israel's Operation Protective Edge is the third major offensive on the Gaza Strip in six years.
Muslims and Arabs in the US say they face discrimination in many areas of life, 13 years after the 9/11 attacks.
At one UN site alone, approximately four children below the age of five are dying each day.
Featured
More than fifty years of an armed struggle for independence from Spain might be coming to an end in the Basque Country.
After the shooting-down of flight MH17, relatives ask what the carrier has learned from still-missing MH370.
Human rights and corporate responsibility prompt a US church to divest from companies doing business with Israel.
Afghan militias have accumulated a lengthy record of human-rights abuses, including murders and rapes.
Growing poverty is strengthening a trend among UK Muslims to fund charitable work closer to home.
join our mailing list