Tunisia struggles to end protests

Demonstrations over unemployment and poor living conditions continue despite president’s warnings of reprisals.

tunisia riot police unemployment protests
Ben Ali, second from left, visited the university graduate who’s attempted suicide sparked the protests [AFP]

Demonstrators in Tunisia are continuing their street protests, ignoring a warning by Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian president, that disturbances will be firmly dealt with.

Protests continued unabated on Wednesday with demonstrators deploring the lack of employment opportunities in the country.

Lawyers have joined students and youths on the streets of the capital and trade unions are reportedly lending their support to the movement.

Ben Ali, who named a new youth minister on Wednesday in a limited cabinet reshuffle, warned earlier that protesters would be punished if rioting continued in the country.

In a speech on state television he blamed a minority of “extremists and mercenaries” for the nationwide unrest.

He has also accused “certain foreign television channels of broadcasting false allegations without verification, based on dramatisation, fermentation and deformation by media hostile to Tunisia”.

Growing protest

The protests began as a spontaneous outburst in the town of Sidi Bouzid on December 17, in response to the attempted suicide of Mohammed Bouazizi, an unemployed graduate.

By Sunday, rallies have spread to Kairouan, Sfax and Ben Guerdane.

“There is a huge frustration, with no hope to find a job and they were humiliated by the government,” Nejib Chebbi, an opposition member and the head of the Al Mawkif newspaper, told Al Jazeera.

La Presse Tunisie, a Tunisian newspaper, reported on Wednesday that Ben Ali had visited Bouazizi in hospital. The paper published a photo of Ben Ali at the young man’s bedside.

Bouazizi, who is being treated in the Traumatology Centre for Severe Burns in the town of Ben Arous, is shown in the picture with his entire body covered in bandages.

Ben Ali has sought to restore calm to the north African Arab nation, promising new measures to create jobs. He accused the protesters of hurting Tunisia’s image abroad.

So far, two people have died in the protests – an unemployed youth who electrocuted himself on an electricity pylon and, in a separate incident, an 18-year-old man who was shot by police.

Social media struggle

The Tunisian state-controlled media initially ignored the demonstrations until they became widespread. Foreign media organisations have extremely limited access in the country.

Human rights groups routinely criticise Tunisia for abuses, including lack of media freedom.

Activists nonetheless have tried to get out the news of the movement.

Videos of the Sidi Bouzid demonstrations were online soon after the protest begun and the Twitter website has been full of commentary.

A Twitter user going by the pseudonym of ibnkafka, who describes himself as a Moroccan lawyer, pointed on Wednesday to the overwhelming silence of Western governments more than a week after the protests first began.

Corruption concerns

Tunisia is generally viewed in the West as one of the most stable and politically “moderate” countries in the region.

But the protests, the most boisterous the country has seen since the 1980s, have indicated a popular frustration with the government, a discontent hinted at earlier this month by a leaked US embassy cable.

The cable, titled “Corruption in Tunisia: What’s Yours is Mine”,dated June 2008 and released by the WikiLeaks whistleblowing website, observes a rising degree of corruption among the Tunisian establishment.

“Whether it’s cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali’s family is rumored to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants,” the memo’s author writes, referring to the well-published theft of a French yacht by a member of the presidential family.

The memo describes how low-level corruption is restricting investment in the country, a lack of foreign investment being one of the factors that economists say is contributing to rising unemployment.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies