Tunisian protests escalate, reflecting widespread discontent
Fourteen people were killed this weekend in protests that began last month and have broadened to include a wide cross-section of Tunisians upset about not only high unemployment, but inequality and autocratic leaders.
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Escalating unrest in Tunisia left 14 dead over the weekend, the Tunisian government said Sunday, a sign that protests that began last month show no signs of letting up.
The protests erupted amid anger over high unemployment, after a jobless, down-on-his-luck young Tunisian man set himself on fire in mid-December.
But the unrest has since spread to a wide cross-section of Tunisian society, reflecting broader discontent with inequality and autocratic leaders perceived as corrupt figures who live high on the hog while blocking free expression by average Tunisians (see map showing protest locations). The pro-Wikileaks hacker group "Anonymous" has even joined the fray, launching cyber attacks on the Tunisian government.
Last weekend also saw violent protests over high food prices in neighboring Algeria.
The Tunisian government reported eight killed since Saturday night in clashes with police in two towns near the Algerian border, four killed in the town of Rgeb, and two more killed in Kasserine province, according to Reuters.
Rioters attacked government offices with gas bombs and other weapons, injuring several police officers, and police only fired in self-defense, state media reported.
"The police opened fire in legitimate self-defense, and this led to two dead and eight wounded, as well as several wounded among police, three of them seriously," a Tunisian Interior Ministry statement said, according to Al Jazeera.
In a recent commentary for Foreign Policy, Christopher Alexander – political science professor and author of "Tunisia: Stability and Reform in the Modern Maghreb," said Tunisians had long put up with the autocratic regime of President Ben Ali because he offered stability and growth.
Authoritarian rule was the price they paid for stability that could attract tourists and investors. Ben Ali was an effective, if uncharismatic, technocratic who beat back the Islamists, generated growth, and saved the country from the unrest that plagued Algeria.
Over the last five years, however, the fabric of Ben Ali's authoritarianism has frayed. Once it became clear that the Islamists no longer posed a serious threat, many Tunisians became less willing to accept the government's heavy-handedness.