Protests in Tunisia Flare Up

Riots in Tunisia have escalated to new levels, with the government declaring a curfew in the capital Tunis. It will begin at 2000 local time (1900 GMT) and will end at 0600 (0500 GMT).

An interior ministry spokesman announced the curfew was being put in place to stem “disturbances, pillaging and attacks against people and property which have occurred in some districts of the city.”

Protests began in rural areas outside the capital city and started out as peaceful demonstrations against the rising cost of food and fuel, as well as the high unemployment rate.

The CIA World Factbook estimates that the rate of unemployment in Tunisia is now 13.30%.

Initially, observed Reuters, the police took a backseat, stepping aside to allow the army to take control. Soldiers were seen patrolling the streets and guarding embassies over the past few days. Violence was minimal, with only a few rare incidents outside the capital of any clashes at all.

However, as the protests escalated in numbers and potency, the police have slowly been dragged into this conflict.

Casualties since the conflict began in December shot up in recent days – officials estimate that around 23 have been killed across the country.

However, trade union activists and human rights agencies estimate the dead to number closer to 50.

Reuters spoke to witnesses of clashes with the police; both of them revealed that police used teargas to dispel the crowd. When this failed to quell the protesters, police opened fire, killing some of the young members of the crowd.

The interior ministry has denied claims of unreasonable violence, stating that the police acted in self-defence when facing protesters armed with petrol bombs and sticks.

President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has replaced his interior minister with Ahmed Friaa, an academic and former junior minister.

The Prime Minster Mohamed Ghannounchi announced “the creation of a committee of investigation into corruption and to assess the mistakes of certain officials.”

President Ben Ali plans to free all detainees held in custody for taking part, and has assured the educated unemployed of Tunisia that they are guaranteed financial assistance from the state.

This demographic has the loudest voice and sway in a country where 10% live under the poverty line and 70% are of working age.

This violence has had damaging effects on the economy, with shares on the Tunis Stock Exchange closing yesterday 3.4% down – their lowest level in 38 weeks. For a nation with a $96 billion GDP, growing at a real rate of 3% a year, the repercussions of this protests and the government’s reaction to it could be devastating.

Farther afield, the protests are now in their fourth week and thus far show little signs of quelling. Analysts predict that while the government may be able to control these demonstrations, the long-term outcome could spell the end of the current administration. They say it will weaken President Ben Ali’s government and strengthen his several opponents.

President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s government took control in 1987, when he was appointed Prime Minister.

During every election, President Ben Ali’s government has been re-elected – granted, amidst charges of falsified results.

A host of independent human rights organizations have declared Ben Ali’s government undemocratic and authoritarian. It has been accused of neglecting its peoples and the democratic process.

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