A wave of street protests, unlike anything the Arab world has seen since Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution in 2005, has caused Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to dismiss his government today.
In a bid to quell a growing rebellion, President Ben Ali promised fair elections but the country was also placed under a nationwide state of emergency.
Tunisia’s state controlled TAP news agency said the country’s parliament has been dissolved even as protesters continue to demand that Ben Ali, who has ruled this country with an iron fist since 1987, be ousted immediately. In what appears to be an effort to play for time, elections have been promised “within six months.”
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The situation in Tunis, the capital, is still developing. What started with rioting in the interior city of Sidi Bouzid in mid-December over rising prices, joblessness, and corruption within Ben Ali’s family spiraled into nationwide protests and riots that have overwhelmed the security forces of one of the region’s most repressive autocracies.
Yesterday Ben Ali promised to step down in 2014 in a bid to get protesters off the streets. Earlier in the week, he promised to create 300,000 new jobs this year (a staggering 821 jobs a day in a country of 10 million people), while not being specific on how.
But the crowds simply grew larger, and Al Jazeera and other regional satellite broadcasters carried footage of defiant chanting, soldiers saluting and shaking hands with protesters, and sporadic efforts at tear-gassing the crowds throughout the day.
The footage had people across the region glued to TVs in cafés and offices and political activists in states like Egypt, which share Tunisia’s weak economy and repressive style of government – perhaps wondering if it’s something they can replicate.
That remains to be seen – as does whether the protesters’ success so far will lead to fundamental change in Tunisia. Ben Ali remains in charge of the army and police. While pushing a dictator to the brink is one thing, toppling him often proves far more difficult.
Tunisia has close ties to the US, which headquarters a State Department initiative to bring democratic and economic reform to the region in Tunis. The US response to Tunisia’s unfolding story has been muted, with Hillary Clinton telling Al Arabiya television earlier this week that America was “worried” but “not taking sides.”
Tunisia summoned the US ambassador earlier this week, angry that he’d condemned the violent tactics used against protesters that have claimed about 60 lives to date.
Asked about that, Ms. Clinton responded: “Well, we regret that because, obviously, we have got a lot of very positive aspects of our relationship with Tunisia” and that the ambassador was just expressing “concern that this is a protest that has, unfortunately, provoked such a reaction from the government, leading to the deaths of mostly young people.”
The private views of US diplomats on Tunisia, contained in diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, are far more critical of the state than the US ever states in public.
“Tunisia is a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems,” a July 2009 cable reads.
Another from 2008 says: “President Ben Ali’s extended family is often cited as the nexus of Tunisian corruption. Often referred to as a quasi-mafia, an oblique mention of ‘the Family’ is enough to indicate which family you mean. Seemingly half of the Tunisian business community can claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage.”