Why are the EU and the US largely ignoring the unfolding tragedy in Algeria and Tunisia?
The Tunisian president has imposed a state of emergency and fired the country’s government amid violent clashes between protesters and security forces, state media has reported.
Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has also promised fresh legislative elections within six months in an attempt to quell the mass dissent over unemployment and high prices, sweeping the North African nation.
There were also reports that the country’s airspace has been closed and troops have taken control of the airport in the capital Tunis.
State media also reported that gathering of more than three people have been banned and arms will be used” if orders of security forces are not heeded.
The latest development on Friday came as police fired tear gas at protesters outside the interior ministry in Tunis.
“We heard shots, I believe they were shooting in the air but for sure they were shooting [tear] gas bombs, and they are trying to disperse and spread people,” Youssef Gaigi, an activist at the scene, told Al Jazeera.
“There were some clashes, police on their bikes and cars hitting people. Things quickly changed. Before, this morning things were totally peaceful, we had people from all social classes, we had people from everywhere come here to Tunis and now they just decided to use violence.”
The protesters are seeking the immediate resignation of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the president, and are refusing to disperse until he steps down.
In a sign of a deepening political stand-off in the North African nation, increasingly being referred to on social media platforms as the “Jasmine Revolution”, thousands of protesters converged in front of the interior ministry building on Friday, chanting slogans such as “Ben Ali, leave!” and “Ben Ali, thank you but that’s enough!”.
The fresh protests came a day after Ben Ali offered sweeping concessions in an attempt to end the wave of dissent sweeping the country.
In a televised address on Thursday night, Ben Ali, who has been in power since 1987, vowed not to seek re-election in 2014. He also promised to institute widespread reforms, introduce more freedoms into society, and to investigate the killings of protesters during demonstrations that have spread throughout the country over the past month.
|Ben Ali (L) spoke with Tunisian General Labour Union leader Abdessalam Jrad on Thursday [EPA]|
Kamel Morjane, the foreign minister, said on Friday that Ben Ali is prepared to hold new legislative elections before the 2014 poll.
Nevertheless, unions planned to hold a general strike in Tunis and some other regions on Friday.
The Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights has tallied 66 deaths since the protests began after a 26-year-old unemployed man set himself on fire in protest in the town of Sidi Bouzid on December 17.
Sources told Al Jazeera on Thursday that at least 13 people had been killed in the past two days alone.
After Ben Ali’s speech, the government appeared to immediately lift its heavy hand from the media, allowing opposition figures onto television and lifting bans on formerly censored websites such as YouTube.
Ben Ali’s about-face was met, at least initially, with limited approval from Tunisia’s opposition.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Tunis on Friday, Najib Chebbi, a former leader of the opposition Progressive Democratic Party and managing editor of the weekly Mawkis newspaper, told Al Jazeera: “What we need now is not speeches or compromises, but a mechanism to carry them out.
“The ruling party cannot keep its monopoly on political life. We are under a one-party system and the failure of this system has produced these protests.”
The Progressive Democratic Party holds no seats in parliament, and Chebbi has asked Ben Ali to form a coalition government.
The Lebanese social media aggregation website Nawaat posted videos of people who had reportedly been shot by police on Thursday night and taken to a hospital in the Kaireddine neighborhood of the capital.
|Video posted by Nawaat appears to shows doctors tending to people shot by Tunisian police the same night Ben Ali ordered security forces to cease fire|
In one, men can be seen praying over the body of a dead man whose head is wrapped in white bandages, with a spot of blood showing through.
A younger man who is wounded explains that the police shouted at his group that “they rule this country, and we answered … you don’t rule this country”.
The protesters were peaceful, the man said, but the police fired live ammunition and aimed indiscriminately.
“All the kids are young, 20 to 22 years old. They are students and professionals, not thugs as they say,” he says
“The police provokes the youth so the youth comes out and reacts … This is God’s will, what can we do.”
In another video, a man suffering from a bullet wound dies as a nurse tries to save him.
The death toll includes seven people who committed suicide in protest over unemployment and economic hardships. The rest were reportedly killed by the Tunisian security forces.
French and Swiss citizens visiting their native country were among those killed, the two European governments said.
In his speech, Ben Ali ordered state security forces not to fire at demonstrators and vowed to cut the prices of staples such as sugar, bread, and milk.
“Enough firing of real bullets,” he said. “I refuse to see new victims fall.”
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“I understand the Tunisians, I understand their demands. I am sad about what is happening now after 50 years of service to the country, military service, all the different posts, 23 years of the presidency,” Ben Ali said. “We need to reach 2014 with proper reconciliation.”
Ben Ali has been elected four times, never with less than 89 per cent of the vote.
Many activists greeted Ben Ali’s promises with caution.
“People are still cautious and doubt these words,” one activist told Al Jazeera. “Turning his words into action will be a very difficult mission.”
Rafik Ouerchefani, a supporter of the centre-left Ettajdid party, told Al Jazeera that he was sceptical that Ben Ali’s promises would be delivered.
“I am happy with the speech, but let’s not forget the dead,” he said.
He said he was relieved that Ben Ali would not be standing down immediately, as time was needed for the country to prepare for a genuinely democratic election.
After decades of being stifled, he said opposition parties must work to prepare candidates capable of taking over the role of president.
“This is already a major victory, now we must work towards the alternative: what happens post-Ben Ali,” he said.