Tunisian Protesters Challenge President's Grip on Power
14 January 2011
A political drama continues to unfold in Tunisia, where thousands of demonstrators marched through the capital, Tunis, Friday demanding President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's resignation. The street protests come a day after the president sought to tamp-down the political unrest by pledging not to seek another term in office and to push through political and media reforms.
President Ben Ali's concessions appear to be a dramatic reversal of a long-standing policy of repression.
Protesters marching down the main boulevard in central Tunis shouted slogans against the president, calling him an assassin and demanding his removal. Friday's demonstrations were the first test of President Ben Ali's pledge to loosen restrictions on the media, slash food prices and stop security forces from using firearms on demonstrators in a country where freedom of speech has long been suppressed.
"As for your political requests, I understood them," Mr. Ben Ali said in a televised address Thursday evening. "Yes, I understood them and I decided to give press freedom on all levels and will not block access to the Internet, and there will be no more scrutiny over the media. However, we have to respect our principles and behavior."
The president appeared shaken during his speech, hastily called to try to stop deadly riots over food prices and high unemployment.
The unrest has at times turned deadly, with hospital officials reporting 13 new killings late Thursday. The latest deaths, not officially confirmed, add to the 23 people already reported by the government to have died since the turmoil erupted in December. Rights groups and the opposition say that number is far higher.
Mr. Ben Ali's conciliatory tone in his national address initially sparked celebrations, with one-time critics blessing the president for recognizing his mistakes. Thousands of people poured into the streets to praise Ben Ali’s name.
But a day later, the president's history of alleged corruption caught up with him, sparking new protests. Mr. Ben Ali has ruled Tunisia for 23 years, and he and his family are accused of stealing the country's wealth for their own gain.
One protester, Dilou Thoraya, says a promise to reform is not enough.
"He has done that under the pressure of the people," she noted. "It is too late, there are 70 dead people. While he was doing his speech, there were people dying in Kairouan. We don't have any trust anymore. The police are in charge here, the Ministry of Interior is in charge."
The unrest began in December when an unemployed university graduate set himself on fire after police confiscated his produce stand. Authorities say he was selling the goods without a permit. But the graduate’s suicide struck a chord among Tunisians frustrated by their lack of influence in the country’s long-running political leadership.
*Photo by Reuters