Al-Jazeerah: Cross-Cultural Understanding
News, January 2011
Tunisians Continue Protests, Death Toll 23, Interior Minister Sacked
President sacks minister, orders most protesters free
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
France 24, AP -
Tunisian Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi said Wednesday that President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali (pictured) had fired the country's interior minister and ordered most of those arrested during weeks of protests against unemployment to be released.
By News Wires (text)
Tunisia’s prime minister said Wednesday that the interior minister has been fired after protest violence that has killed at least 23 people and left the country’s leadership struggling to keep the country under control.
Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi also announced that most prisoners arrested during nearly a month of riots are being freed. He said the release did not apply to those whose guilt has been proven, without elaborating.
The prime minister announced the appointment of a new interior minister, Ahmed Friaa.
Despair over Tunisia’s soaring unemployment and corruption has fueled the protests, which pose the most significant challenge yet to President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The 74-year-old leader grabbed power 23 years ago in a bloodless coup.
The government has said 23 people have died in the protests around the country during which police repeatedly shot at demonstrators setting fire to buildings and stoning police.
Unions and witnesses say at least 46 have died in the unrest.
Social networks like Facebook have helped spread word of the protests in a country where the media are tightly controlled and little dissent is allowed.
The protests began in towns in the center of the country, far from the Mediterranean beaches popular with European tourists. But they have been spreading, and riots were reported late Tuesday in the Ettadhamoun neighborhood five kilometers (three miles) west of Tunis -- the first time the violence has reached so near the capital.
Violent unrest over unemployment spreads to capital Tunis
The unrest over Tunisia's soaring unemployment that has fueled more than three weeks of deadly riots hit the capital Tunis Tuesday. The violence poses a challenge the iron-fisted leadership of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
By News Wires (text)
France 24, REUTERS -
Police fired into the air to disperse a crowd ransacking buildings in a Tunis suburb on Tuesday, the first time a wave of violent unrest that officials say has killed 23 civilians has hit the capital.
People taking part in the weeks of clashes rocking Tunisia say they want jobs and better living conditions, but the authorities say the protests have been hijacked by a minority of violent extremists armed with petrol bombs and clubs.
In the strongest U.S. statement on the violence to date, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Washington was "deeply concerned by reports of the use of excessive force by the government of Tunisia".
A Reuters reporter in the working-class Ettadamen neighbourhood of Tunis said he saw hundreds of youths, who had earlier blocked roads with burning tyres and hurled stones at police, try to attack a local government building.
Police fired warning shots into the air and also fired teargas grenades to try to force people back from the building, the reporter said. "We are not afraid, we are not afraid, we are afraid only of God," the crowds chanted.
The main body of the crowd later dispersed and police were pursuing small groups of people through side streets near the scene of the earlier stand-off.
A witness reported that large numbers of police reinforcements had been brought in and were being kept on standby a few blocks away. There was no sign of any disturbances in other parts of the city.
The unrest is the worst in decades. Officials said the civilian deaths -- almost all of them in clashes in provincial towns at the weekend -- came about when police fired on rioters in legitimate self-defense.
Reports of the clashes in Tunis emerged minutes after the government raised the death toll from the unrest by three, but dismissed human rights groups' estimates of a higher number.
Until Tuesday evening there had been no reports of major new clashes after the army was deployed in the most restive towns, schools and universities were shut indefinitely and police with loudhailers ordered people in at least one town not to gather in the streets.
Tunisia -- a country of 10 million people which depends on trade and tourism for its economic survival -- has been bracing for international reaction to its handling of the protests. But former colonial ruler France, which still carries influence in the north African country, responded to the unrest without apportioning blame for the deaths.
Tunisian Communications Minister Samir Labidi told a news conference that the death toll from clashes in the past few days was 21 -- three more than previously announced.
An additional two people were killed in clashes earlier in the unrest, which has now been under way for almost a month. A further two committed suicide in acts of protest.
"All other figures given by television and agencies which talk about 40 or 50 (dead) are totally false," Labidi said.
"Religious extremist movements and extremist movements from the left have infiltrated these protests and pushed for violence," he said.
Addressing the grievances of some of those involved in the clashes, he said: "Our response to the demands of the young people is economic and social reforms and more opening up towards liberty."
Souhayr Belhassan, who chairs the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights, had earlier told Reuters the figure established by her organisation was 35 people killed. "The toll ... could get worse," she said.
The main focus of the protests has been bread-and-butter issues but some of those taking part have criticised President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, especially on social media such as Twitter and Facebook.
In one of the most vivid examples, a song by a 22-year-old rapper entitled "Mr. President, your people are dying", was widely circulated online. The rapper, Hamada Ben-Amor, was detained and released three days later, his brother said.
Ben Ali, facing the worst unrest of his 23-year rule, said on Monday the rioting was a "terrorist act", orchestrated by foreign forces trying to damage Tunisia. He also promised to create 300,000 jobs before the end of 2012.
Trouble in paradise: How one vendor unmasked the 'economic miracle'
The combination of sun, sea, sand and stability has made Tunisia a popular tourist destination for decades. But will the recent deadly social unrest undermine the so-called “Tunisian economic miracle”?
A tiny wedge of land hugging North Africa’s Mediterranean coast, sun-baked Tunisia is a tourist’s paradise offering sea, sand, ancient Roman ruins, modern spas – or just the simple charm of sipping coffee while gazing at a clear blue sea undisturbed by beggars, touts and the rampant poverty plaguing so many of the world’s idyllic tourist destinations.
But far from the all-inclusive resorts of Hammamet, Sousse or Jerba – where most of the 7 million-odd tourists who visit Tunisia each year gather – trouble has been brewing in this North African paradise.
It all started on Dec. 17, when a street vendor in the southern Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire after police confiscated his produce because he did not have a permit.
The incident sparked protests across Tunisia – a rare occurrence in the tightly controlled Arab nation – and as security forces reacted to the unexpected events, the death toll from clashes between police and protesters began to mount.
Tunisian officials say 14 people were killed over the weekend while trade unions and opposition groups put the death toll over the past three days at more than 50.
Ever since Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956, the Muslim-majority nation has been ruled by authoritarian presidents who placed an emphasis on economic and social development – particularly education and women’s rights – but tolerated virtually no political opposition.
The current president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, is Tunisia’s second president since it gained independence. He has governed unopposed for the past 23 years, with elections routinely resulting in landslide victories for the ruling RDC (Democratic Constitutional Rally) party.
While the country’s eastern and western neighbours – Libya and Algeria – have been rattled by Islamism, brutal civil wars or paranoid revolutions, Tunisia has been an island of stability in the region.
For many Tunisians, Ben Ali’s authoritarian rule was a price they were willing to pay for stability.
Getting the economic miracle past ‘the Family’
But a street vendor’s self-immolation last month appears to have upset the apple cart.
In southern provincial towns far from the Mediterranean coastal spots where tourists throng, protesters have been demonstrating over high unemployment rates, which the World Bank estimates at just under 15 percent, more than double the 6.4 percent rate for other middle income countries.
While Tunisia’s impressive education system sees around 75,000 students graduate every year, the World Bank estimates that 46 percent of educated youths are still unemployed a year-and-a-half after graduating.
“About 15 years ago, Tunisia saw the emergence of a middle class through education, there was some social mobility,” said Lahcen Achy, an economist at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “But for the past ten years, the beneficiaries of higher education can no longer break into the workforce. Social mobility no longer works. In the old days, there were few opportunities, today there are none.”
According to Achy, most of the beneficiaries of the “Tunisian economic miracle” have been limited to Ben Ali’s close circle, including First Lady Leila Ben Ali’s influential Trabelsi clan.
US diplomatic cables leaked to the whistleblower WikiLeaks site noted that Tunisians obliquely refer to Ben Ali’s wealthy cronies and clansmen as “the Family” and added that while some Tunisians believe the president is being used by the much-derided Trabelsi clan, “it is hard to believe Ben Ali is not aware, at least generally, of the growing corruption problem”.
Low-skilled jobs for an educated populace
In an op-ed column for The Los Angeles Times, Achy noted that one of the reasons for the high jobless rate among educated youth is that Tunisia has based its growth strategy on low-skill sectors that depend on cheap labor – such as textiles and tourism.
While tourism accounted for 370,000 jobs and 7 percent of GDP in 2009 in this country of around 10 million people, experts such as Larbi Sadiki, a senior lecturer in Middle East politics at Britain’s University of Exeter, note that tourism today is only partly Tunisian-owned.
In an interview with the Voice of America, Sadiki pointed that the bulk of the profits from tourism do not stay in Tunisia. “They create some employment – there’s lots of cheap labour, but there is not actually reinvestment of the proceeds from tourism into Tunisia to create more jobs for the youth,” said Sadiki.
Nearly a month after the violent protests first broke, the tourism industry appears to be unaffected by the recent social unrest – so far.
“We’re not seeing any cancellations, it hasn’t affected us at all,” said Christophe Bazille, marketing manager for hotels.com, a Web site that offers hotel bookings in more than 60 countries. “This is a very low season for tourism in Tunisia. The high season is from July 1 to the end of August. But we have seen no decrease in sales for business travellers, for instance. We haven’t seen any cancellations for rooms so I would say this is not affecting us at all.”
Achy however believes that if the social upheaval continues, Tunisia’s tourism industry will be hit in the long term. "We’ve seen a decline in tourism in all countries where there were violent events,” said Achy. “It happened after the 2003 attacks (in Casablanca) in Morocco or the terrorist attacks in Egypt,” he said, referring to the 1997 attack at the Hatsheput temple in Luxor, which seriously affected the Egyptian tourism industry.
So many new jobs, so little time…
While the recent unrest has been limited to southern provincial towns, leaving the capital of Tunis and other resort towns largely unaffected, there were reports of rioting on Monday in Bizerte, a popular tourist destination during the summer high season.
Analysts believe that if the unrest were to spread to Tunis and other resort areas, the government would impose a complete crackdown.
Indeed hours after students demonstrated at a campus in Tunis on Monday, the government announced an indefinite closure of all schools and universities.
For the moment though, Ben Ali appears to be listening to his disgruntled countrymen.
In a nationally televised speech on Monday – his second since the recent violence broke out – Ben Ali promised to create 300,000 new jobs before the end of 2012.
But Achy is skeptical about the Tunisian president’s latest promise. "In recent years, Tunisia has created an average of 75,000 jobs per year with a growth rate of 5 percent,” he said. “But in 2011, the growth rate is forecast to be around 3.8 percent and less than that in 2012. That would mean creating 150,000 jobs per year. I don’t see which sectors could absorb as many jobs.”
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