Tunisia: Protests and repression continues

The mobilization of the Tunisian people since Tuesday did not decrease and on the opposite it continues to shake the pillars of the authoritarian regime of Ben Ali which appears increasingly fragile. The authorities are on their side increasing repression towards the protesters and political activists. For the first time, the army and its armored vehicles made also their appearance in the streets of the capital on Wednesday. Today, armored units and police security forces have replaced those of the army on Habib Bourguiba Central Avenue and the place Barcelona. Only two army vehicles with armed soldiers are still stationed on Ibn Khaldun square, opposite the French Embassy. Military reinforcements were also visible around the home of the radio and the television in the Lafayette area, and others on the square of the Passage.

The movement of protest is nevertheless growing every day among the population and everywhere all over the country. The capital Tunis, spared by the riots since the beginning of the crisis witnessed its first clashes on the outskirts of the capital on Tuesday night provoking the death of dozens of protesters, and they were repeated on Wednesday night despite the curfew imposed by the authorities challenged by the protesters, six of whom were killed. The clashes occurred about 15 km from the center of the capital in the neighborhoods of Ettadhamen and Intilaka, opposing young demonstrators and the security forces, as well as in the district of al-Kerm, north of Tunis. The Tunisian authorities have actually imposed a night curfew in the capital Tunis for an indefinite period; this is the first time such action has been taken since the takeover of power of President Ben Ali in 1987.  In the western region of Kasserine, the last four days of unrest caused the death of around 50 people according to labor unions and human rights groups, while the government announced only 14 killed. In Sfax, an economic metropolis 300 km south of Tunis, police gunfire wounded 5 protesters in this city, where a “general strike” was observed, according to a union source. Several other cities witnessed as well clashes between security forces and demonstrators such as in the southern city of Douz where two civilians were killed by police firing or in Thala, a city located in the center west, in which one protester was shot dead and two were injured by security forces on Wednesday night, according to a trade unionist.

Hamma Hammami, former editor of the newspaper Alternatives, banned by the authorities, and spokesman of the Tunisian Workers Communist Party (PCOT), was arrested Wednesday morning while he was at his home. This is the first political leader to be arrested since the beginning of the crisis. He was arrested following a speech published on Facebook calling the President Ben Ali to resign and he declared as well in an interview with the weekly Italian Left that “The movement is stronger than the regime and may lead to its downfall. We do not know when, but the road is marked”. In response to the arrest of its leader, the PCOT called the rest of the opposition to form an “interim national government”.
The Chair of the Committee against Torture, Radhia Nasraoui with fellow lawyers were attacked by security forces dressed as civilian on Tuesday during a demonstration against the regime in downtown Tunis, Avenue Bourguiba. The journalist of Radio Kalima, Nizar Ben Hassen, was also abducted from his home in the town of Cheb on Tuesday by special units of the Presidency of the Republic of Tunisia. He was taken to an unknown location

Following a month of protests and clashes between the demonstrators and the security forces, and increase repression against the protesters and activists, the regime also tried to appease the people by some so called “measures of appeasement”. The Tunisian President decided yesterday to sack his interior minister Rafik Belhaj Kacem, who was responsible for the police force, in view of appeasing the anger of the population. The regime by the voice of Mohamed Ghannouchi, the prime minister, has also declared at a press conference on Wednesday that all those arrested in the wave of demonstrations had been released, but gave no figure for how many had been originally detained and until now no confirmation of the veracity of this declaration. Ghannouchi also said that allegations by opposition and non-government groups into corruption would be investigated by a special commission.

These so called “measures of appeasement” from the authorities are certainly not enough to put an end to the protests or at least weaken them because they have definitely reach another level, it is not only anymore a social protest around unemployment and high cost of living but clearly a political one. The Tunisian people are actually more and more prompt in criticizing and denouncing the current regime, as we can observe through the slogans of the demonstrators calling to the end of Ben Ali’s regime. The movement of protest has showed the depth and the breadth of the rejection of President Ben Ali and of his regime. There is no turning back for many protesters, a student actually declaring that “the power of Ben Ali has been shaken, it is not the time to stop”, while another student said that she does not feel anymore as a citizen in her own country, in her opinion Ben Ali must go and this is the only solution. The unsaid is definitely broken and the people have regained confidence in them.

Promises such as the creation of 300 000 jobs or so called measures of appeasement from the regime towards the population such as sacking a minister, as well as threats and repression are no longer accepted. In 1984, during the “bread revolt”, Habib Bourguiba had finally withdrawn the decision to increase the price of bread and the movement had stopped. Today, despite Ben Ali’s speeches on the 28th of December and on the 10th of January attempting to ease the protest, the movement grew and the protests increased. People want change and this movement of protest is in many ways a reminder to Ben Ali’s words on Radio Tunis when he dismissed Habib Bourguiba of the Presidency and took over the power in November 1987: “The times we are living can no longer tolerate either presidency for life nor automatic succession as head of state, where the people are excluded”. These words should now be resonating and echoing very strongly in the ears of President Ben Ali because the people of Tunisia are in the streets and they are here to stay. They will not accept anymore the brutality, the corruption, and the absence of total democracy and social justice of this regime. Ben Ali and his counterparts have now two options: take the path towards democracy and social justice or stay in power by a large and long repression and bloodbath against the people.
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