By ELAINE GANLEY and BOUAZZA BEN BOUAZZA, Associated Press Jan 11, 2011
TUNIS, Tunisia – In the cruise ship brochures, Tunisia is a land of
endless sandy beaches, warm Mediterranean waters, ancient ruins and
But behind the postcard-perfect facade, legions of jobless youths who see
no future are seething under the iron-fisted leadership of President Zine
El Abidine Ben Ali, and worried fathers wonder how they will feed their
families. Their despair over Tunisia's soaring unemployment and rising
food prices has fueled more than three weeks of deadly riots, posing the
most significant challenge yet to the 74-year-old leader who grabbed power
23 years ago in a bloodless coup.
And what has helped to break the barrier of fear that kept Tunisian anger
bottled up for so long? Social networks like Facebook, which have helped
organize protests and fuel online rage across this North African nation.
Police have fired repeatedly on protesters. The government says 23 people
have died in the riots — 21 in the last three days — but unions and
witnesses say at least 46 have died. In the town of Kasserine, site of the
bloodiest confrontation, police were reported to have killed a man
carrying the coffin of a child.
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. A resident said youths set fire to a local
administration building and sacked banks, while police fired on rioters.
He spoke on condition of anonymity, because of the sensitivity of the
The revolt that began with an individual protest Dec. 17 has left this
moderate Muslim nation's reputation as a symbol of modernity in tatters
and highlighted its inability to provide opportunities for its young.
"When a father can no longer feed his children, he loses his place ... and
his dignity," said Selim Ben Hassen, the Paris-based president of the
Byrsa citizens movement. "It's not just a question of money. It's a
question of honor."
Ben Hassen credits Facebook for spreading word of the unrest — and
bolstering timid citizens to break their traditional code of silence.
"The psychological barrier of fear has fallen," Ben Hassen said. "People
now know it's possible to go into the streets, cry 'Freedom!' and say 'We
don't want a president for life.'"
Video-sharing sites like YouTube and Daily Motion are banned in Tunisia,
where newspapers are tightly censured, but Facebook abounds and videos
posted there are quickly spread around.
One in 10 Tunisians has a Facebook account, according to Ben Hassen, whose
movement is also on Facebook.
"It's a form of civil resistance," he said.
In the capital of Tunis, police violently broke up a demonstration Tuesday
by about 100 actors, musicians and other artists that condemned the
government crackdown on the rioters, Tunisian stage director Fadhel Jaibi
told The Associated Press.
Jalila Baccar said she saw police attack fellow actress Raja Ben Ammar.
"(She was) insulted, beaten, knocked to the ground and dragged by her hair
for a few hundred meters (yards)," Baccar said.
The unrest began after Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old with a university
degree, set himself on fire when police in the central town of Sidi Bouzid
confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was selling without a permit. He
later died in a hospital near Tunis, and his desperate act touched a nerve
with educated, unemployed youths nationwide.
Unemployment in Tunisia is officially around 14 percent but is much higher
in rural areas and among youths.
The death even sparked several copycat suicides — in the latest, an
unemployed 23-year-old climbed an electric pylon Tuesday near Bouazizi's
hometown and electrocuted himself, union official Mohamed Fadhel told the
The unrest has hopscotched to towns around the country, concentrated in,
but not limited to, regions less visible to the waves of European tourists
who flock to Tunisia's beaches. Public buildings, schools, cars and even
police stations have been attacked.
Ben Ali, whose portrait hangs in public offices across the country, has
labeled the rioting "terrorist acts" controlled from abroad. On Monday, he
ordered all high schools and universities, seen as hotbeds of activism, to
shut down indefinitely.
His government is now arresting bloggers and reporters. Paris-based
Reporters Without Borders said a journalist for Radio Kalima was carted
off Tuesday from his home in the city of Sfax and a correspondent for the
radio in the southern city of Gabes was sprayed with a Mace-like gas,
pushed into a truck and taken to the Interior Ministry.
Most of the deaths have been over the last three days in the central town
of Kasserine, 120 miles (200 kilometers) southwest of Tunis.
"After trying in vain to stop (protesters) from invading police stations
and firing warning shots, security forces were obliged to open fire," the
Interior Ministry said statement Tuesday of violence there Monday.
Local teacher Chokri Hayouni said he counted 19 dead in the city, where he
said 3,000 soldiers were deployed, including over a dozen military
vehicles positioned around the central bank.
Youths in neighboring Algeria took to the streets for four days to protest
skyrocketing prices of staples like cooking oil and sugar, but authorities
quickly slashed prices and calm returned. Experts see no particular link
between the events.
France, the former colonial ruler, has laid low during the Tunisian unrest.
But the United States summoned Tunisia's ambassador, and U.S. State
Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Tunisians should enjoy the right to
protest and expressed concern about a crackdown on the country's social
In response, Tunisia's Foreign Ministry summoned the U.S. ambassador
Monday, expressing "surprise" at the American reaction.
Germany's deputy Foreign Minister Werner Hoyer warned on Tuesday the
unrest could affect Tunisia's rapprochement with the European Union.
The country vaunts its modernity. Tunisian women are banned from wearing
Islamic head scarves in public buildings and have the right to initiate
divorce. However, critics say that women are being used as window dressing
in a country that fails to offer its citizens basic freedoms.
"The law will have the last word," Ben Ali told the nation in a televised
address Monday. He insisted he is personally committed to creating 300,000
jobs in the next two years.
A former interior minister now in his fifth term, Ben Ali is suspected of
wanting to replicate the man he ousted, president-for-life Habib
Bourguiba, the founder of modern-day Tunisia.
Significantly, the offices of his ruling RCD party, which tightly controls
political life, were among the buildings attacked by rioters.
Ganley reported from Paris.