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Turmoil in Tunisia

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Turmoil in Tunisia - by Stephen Lendman

Earlier turmoil began in 2000, the first protests since 1984 bread riots, including a three-day professional drivers strike in Tunis. Demonstrations followed in over a dozen cities by students, unemployed youths and others. Protestors attacked government symbols, including public buildings. Poverty, rising food and energy prices, high unemployment, and political repression were proximate causes. Le Monde, at the time, called the turmoil "the first warning shots aimed at President (Zine al-Abidine) Ben Ali."

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Protests then erupted in mid-December after Mohammed Bouazizi, an unemployed graduate working as a vegetable seller set himself on fire in front of government offices in Sidi Bouzid, protesting police confiscation of his merchandise for operating without a permit. At his January 4 funeral, marchers chanted, "Farewell, Mohammed, we will avenge you. We weep for you today. We will make those who caused your death weep."

His uncle, Mehdi Horchani, told AFP, he "gave his life to draw attention to his condition and that of his brothers." Tunisia, like Algeria and other regional countries have high unemployment, especially affecting youths, because economic conditions and structural market mandates forced cuts. Moreover, in Tunisia like elsewhere in the region, it's impossible to get decent jobs without connections or greasing palms. 

Unprecedented December protests continued and spread, including in Tunis. As expected, police reacted harshly, opening fire on demonstrators, killing 18-year old Mohammed Amari in Sidi Bou Zid. At the time, Ben Ali warned on television that law and order would "be applied in all firmness to punish a minority of extremists and mercenaries who resort to violence and disorder."

In 1987, he succeeded President Habib Bourguiba, who ruled Tunisia after independence from France in 1956. A BBC obituary called him the "father of Tunisia" who led its fight against "colonial master, France." Writer Dirk Vandewalle described "Bourguibism" as a "curious mixture of political ideology and personal domination (as well as) pragmatic, opportunistic," pro-Western one-party rule. During his tenure, Tunisia was mostly peaceful. 

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That changed under Ben Ali, a harsh despot who tolerated no dissent. In late December, London-based Asharq Alawsat writer Abdulrahman al Rashed warned protests showed his loss of credibility, saying:

"The demonstrations in Tunisia are refusing to stop; these have spread throughout the cities and even reached the nation's capital, in a clear challenge to the state." Despite economic hard times, he said, "Tunisia's problem is more political than economic and goes beyond the anger of the unemployed masses. This is a problem of a lack of trust in the government, and loss (of its) credibility" after 23 years of harsh rule. Economic duress lit a fuse, erupting in mass street protests against very unpopular rule.

Al Rashad observed that despite hard times, Tunisia is one of the most prosperous Arab nations based on per capital income. It's also one of the best educated. As a result, he asked, "If (Tunisians are) dissatisfied, what can we say about the citizens of other Arab nations" suffering much worse? How long will take before more eruptions?

Arab Street Rage

Today, in Tunisia, the Maghreb, and across the region, public anger rages (mostly beneath the surface) over economic hardships, corruption, and repressive rule. Trying to placate it on January 13, Ben Ali told a national television audience he'd step down when his term ends in 2014. 

It didn't help. On January 14, New York Times writer David Kirkpatrick headlined, "Tunisia Leader Flees and Prime Minister (Mohammed Ghannouchi) Claims Power," saying:

Ben Ali fled Friday night, "capitulating after a month of mounting protests calling for an end to his 23 years of authoritarian rule. The official Saudi Arabian news agency said he arrived in the country early Saturday."

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A state of emergency was declared. A curfew was imposed. The army banned street gatherings of more than three people, saying violators would be shot. 

Long associated with torture, Tunisia's interior ministry is reviled. It's believed there's one policeman for every 40 Tunisians, two-thirds in plain clothes operating covertly. Prior to Ben Ali's departure, police attacked street protesters violently with tear gas grenades, live fire, and beatings while some lay on the ground,

Shortly afterwards, state news said Ben Ali sacked his government, declared a state of emergency, saying new elections would be held in six months, and Prime Minister Mohammed Ghanouchi would form an interim government. 

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I was born in 1934, am a retired, progressive small businessman concerned about all the major national and world issues, committed to speak out and write about them.

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