News / Africa

International Community Calls for Crackdown on Tunisia Violence

A military armored vehicle in Ettadhamoun, west of Tunis, Jan 12, 2011
A military armored vehicle in Ettadhamoun, west of Tunis, Jan 12, 2011
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Lisa Schlein

Calls are growing for the international community to adopt a tougher reaction to the escalating violence in Tunisia. The criticism is particularly vocal in former colonial power France.

France has a front-row seat to the unfolding violence in Tunisia. Paris has longtime economic and political ties with its former colony and a large Tunisian diaspora lives in France. Not surprisingly, the three weeks of clashes between protesters and police in the North African country has been top news here.

On Thursday, the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights notched up its estimated death toll in Tunisia to 66. The Tunisian government's own estimates are about 21 dead. The protests, which ignited over economic problems, have taken political overtones and there are calls for Tunisia's long-time president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali to step down.

On Wednesday, Tunisian police broke into the Tunis home of prominent opposition activist Hamam Hamammi and arrested him. Hamammi is head of the Tunisia Communist Workers party. Adel Thabet,  the party's representative in France, says there has been no word from him since.

Thabet said Paris should speak out more forcefully against Ben Ali's authoritarian regime. He is not the only one.

The United States, the European Union and France have all expressed concern about the deaths in Tunisia. But critics say the international community  - and particularly former colonial power France - should be more forceful.  A senior French Socialist senator, Jean-Pierre Sueur said he regretted the "silence" of French authorities.

While Mr. Ben Ali's regime is criticized for disregarding free expression and human rights, it has been a strong supporter of the West and the fight against terrorism. Analysts like Philippe Moreau Defarges say that puts France in a difficult position.

In an interview on French radio, Moreau Defarges says France and other western countries want democracy in Tunisia. But after 23 years of dictatorial rule by Mr. Ben Ali, the country may not be prepared for a swift democratic transition.

The Tunisian government has been scrambling to offer its version of events, suggesting extremists are behind the unrest. Tunisia's ambassador to UNESCO in Paris, Mezri Haddad, spoke on French television Thursday morning.

Mr. Haddad said President Ben Ali had no intention of stepping down. He must stay in power, he said, because Tunisia was threatened by fanatics and neo-Bolsheviks.

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