Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Bread, Freedom, Dignity! - The Tunisian Protests Continue
Here is an article from the New York Times about the protests going on in Tunisia right now.
There is also a great blog piece by Robert Mackey of the NYT about how Tunisians are using the internet to document whats going on. Check it out here, it has a lot of good video clips and links straight from Tunisia.
Mayhem Spreads in Tunisia; Curfew Decreed
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
Published: January 12, 2011
TUNIS — The government of Tunisia scrambled alternately to appease critics and to crush growing unrest on Wednesday as a three-week-old wave of violent demonstrations spread for the first time to the capital, where swarms of protesters called for the ouster of the authoritarian president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
The protesters came together after circulating calls to rally over social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Many were unemployed college graduates, and they angrily demanded more jobs and denounced what they called the self-enrichment of Tunisia’s ruling family.
Army units and riot police officers were deployed around the city around dawn in anticipation, and they quickly dispersed protesters with billy clubs, tear gas and bullets.
By late in the day, the government decreed a nighttime curfew. And there were reports that some relatives of the president were leaving the country for their own safety.
At one of several demonstrations, witnesses reported that the security forces had shot and killed four protesters. Some said the army had used rooftop snipers to fire on the crowd. Rights groups said they had confirmed more than 30 deaths before the day began, all in skirmishes with the police over the last several days.
“How can you fire on your own people?” said a 30-year-old business owner taking refuge from the police as they broke up a protest near the French Embassy and train station downtown. “If you do that, then there is no return. Now, you are a killer.” He declined to provide his name for fear of reprisals.
Tunisia is in some ways the most European country of North Africa. It boasts a relatively large middle class, liberal social norms, broad gender equality and welcoming Mediterranean beaches. United States officials give it high marks for its aggressive prosecution of terrorism suspects.
But Tunisia also has one of the most repressive governments in a region full of police states. Residents long tolerated extensive surveillance, scant civil liberties and the routine use of torture, at least until the economic malaise that has gripped southern Europe spread here, sending unemployment and public resentment skyrocketing.
The government began the day trying to placate the protesters. The prime minister announced in a televised news conference the replacement of the interior minister — the public face of the crackdown. The government pledged to release prisoners who had been arrested in the demonstrations, and to initiate commissions to investigate excesses by the security forces as well as corruption in the government.
But the sacrifice of the interior minister did nothing to calm the protesters, who took to the streets downtown and in working-class neighborhoods on the outskirts as well.
Even as the prime minister pledged to release prisoners, security forces were apprehending others in their homes. One was a spokesman for the outlawed Communist Party, Hamma Hammémi, who had became a voice of the protests in French news media.
“He explained that the regime has lost all legitimacy,” said his wife, Radhia Nasraoui, a human rights activist. “So we were expecting this.”
By midday, cafes along Tunis’s main tree-lined boulevard were pulling in their tables and chairs to avoid tear-gas fumes, and pedestrians scurried in fear of brigades of riot police officers patrolling the streets.
In Sfax, Tunisia’s second-largest city, word spread that workers had called a general strike, and violence broke out in the cities of Thala and Douz as well.
By late afternoon, the government announced a curfew of 8 p.m., and businesses around Tunis hastily pulled down their gates as employees raced home.
President Ben Ali and other officials have sought to place blame for the unrest on foreign terrorists or Islamic radicals capitalizing on the frustrations of the unemployed. But there was little evidence of any reference to God or Islam around the protests on Wednesday, and some demonstrators called the assertion insulting.
“They say the people are terrorists, but they are the real terrorists, Ben Ali and his family,” said Ala Djebali, an 18-year-old student hiding in the train station after a protest downtown.
Protesters seemed to direct much of their anger at the great wealth and lavish life of President Ben Ali’s second wife, Leila Trabelsi, a former hairdresser, and their extended family, most notably their son-in-law, the billionaire businessman Mohamed Sakher El Materi.
Mr. Materi, whose company Princess El Materi Holdings includes a major “independent” newspaper here, is a member of Parliament and a prominent official in the ruling party. Like heirs to the presidents of Egypt and Libya (and the current presidents of Syria and Lebanon), Mr. Materi is also discussed as a potential successor to President Ben Ali.
A gracious dinner at Mr. Materi’s home was detailed in a cable from the American ambassador to Tunisia that was released by the antisecrecy organization WikiLeaks and fueled at least some of the outrage: a beachfront compound decorated with Roman artifacts; ice cream and frozen yogurt flown from St.-Tropez, France; a Bangladeshi butler and South African nanny; and a pet tiger in a cage.
On Wednesday, however, there were reports that Mr. Materi had fled the country and taken refuge in another mansion he owns, in Montreal.
Mona El-Naggar contributed reporting from Cairo, and J. David Goodman from New York.