Tunisia drowns in its discontent

Alaa Murad, Tuesday 11 Jan 2011

A day after the president's speech, Tunisia remains on edge as the normally hard line regime fails to contain public discontent

Demonstrators throw stones at police officers in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, Monday 10 January 2011. (AP)

Tunisia's authorities grip on its people appears to be on the verge of ruin as the government repeatedly fails to quell protests or placate the public.

Amid widespread riots in the small North African country, the government, according to several media reports, has ordered the closure of schools. This followed a presidential speech yesterday that alternated between patronizing domestic and international challengers and denouncing the demonstrators as "terrorists."

The protests, motivated by the country's dismal economic conditions manifest in unemployment and rising food prices, erupted after a young Tunisian, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire on December 17 in Sidi Bouzid.

Protests broke out in the wake of Bouazizi's shocking suicide statement and quickly spread to other parts of Tunisia. People rallied in Tunis, the capital, in solidarity, and more protests broke out in Sousse.

At the beginning of a new year, protests and rallies continued to spread engulfing Tala and Kasserine.

The death toll resulting from the government's crackdown on protestors reached 50 on Tuesday, a union source told AFP.

Tunisia has been strongly criticized for the brutal manner in which it handled the challenge. Accusations of police brutality and violating freedoms were at the heart of condemnations against the government. Its approach is akin to that of a colonial oppressor rather than of a sovereign government.

With the Tunisian government's long history of excessive censorship and a reputation as a closed state, the way it handled the situation was not surprising. It was rather the public's persistence in standing their ground in a country where such "acts of violence" are not tolerated that stunned both the government and observers.

President Zin Al-Abiden Bin Ali's pledge to create 300,000 new jobs failed to placate people taking part in what Reuters has called the "worst civilian disobedience in his 23-year rule."

But others remain hopeful the president is true to his word. Reuters asked young Tunisians standing in line at a Lafayette job centre if they could take Ben Ali on his word.

"The president's speech gave us new hope... I have a master's degree in economics and I have been jobless for four years. I hope I will get lucky and land a job soon," Hamdi, who is from Sidi Bouzid, told the news agency.

"I hope the promises will become a reality," said Imen, who waited for her turn at the same job centre.

Before news agencies started their extensive coverage of Tunisia's troubles, social network sites like Twitter and Facebook served as an outlet for news and images of the popular uprising.

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