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January 11, 2011

Police, Demonstrators Clash in Tunisian Capital

New clashes between police and demonstrators erupted Wednesday in the Tunisian capital of Tunis, after sporadic disturbances overnight.

The new wave of unrest took place just hours after Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi announced that the country's interior minister had been fired and replaced.

Ghannouchi told reporters the sacking of Interior Minister Rafik Belhaj Kacem would be accompanied by the appointment of committees to investigate recent violence and cases of official corruption.

Ghannouchi said all those who were arrested during the recent events that took place in parts of the country will be released, with the exception of those proven to be involved in acts of extreme violence, destruction and looting of property.

Tunisian Minister of Communication Samir Laabidi defended the government’s performance, saying outside forces have been trying to destabilize the situation.

Laabidi said that small groups of extremists have infiltrated popular demonstrations in order to take advantage of the situation and to create strife in the country. He specifically accused Islamic and leftist groups of infiltrating public protests.

Labidi said 21 people have died in the recent wave of unrest, challenging significantly higher figures presented by human rights groups.

Schools and universities across the country remain closed following a government decree, in an apparent bid to stifle a burgeoning student protest movement.

Khattar Abou Diab, who is professor of political science at the University of Paris III, argued that the protest movement has been mostly spontaneous and driven by young people, worried about unemployment.

Abou Diab said the catalyst for this crisis was a lack of employment opportunities for Tunisia’s educated professionals. Both in Tunisia and Algeria, he pointed out, the wave of protest has been led by those who are neglected by the system. Among them are young people without any future, embittered by political stagnation, a lack of freedom of expression or a free press, combined with unemployment and a global economic crisis.

Abou Diab notes that Tunisia combines an authoritarian political system with a free market economy that has traditionally performed better than that of most North African countries, along with a generally strong educational system.

He said the reaction of President Ben Ali has been mostly cosmetic, and doubts that promising to create more jobs and firing the interior minister will stifle protests.

The wave of unrest in Tunisia began last month after a 26-year-old university graduate set himself on fire when police confiscated merchandise he was hawking on the street. Authorities insisted he did not have a permit. The young man later died from third-degree burns.