Tunisian protests and Egyptian self-immolations

What I'm reading this morning.

Zohra Bensemra/Reuters
Protesters chant slogan while riot police stand by during a demonstration in downtown Tunis, Tunisia, on Jan. 17.

0815 ET

Tunisian protesters were out on the streets of the capital again today, rejecting an interim government that is packed full of the same people who worked for ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ali (from interim President Fouad Mebazaa and interim Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi to the key security posts). Twitter remains the best way to follow breaking news, though the feeds are chaotic and full of rumor and unconfirmed reports. The best hash tag still seems #sidibouzid (the name of the town where the protests began in December after a young man's suicide).

The BBC indicates that the interim government (the Monitor's Kristen Chick in Tunis explained yesterday why protesters aren't happy about the new government) is already on shaky ground, reporting that three ministers from an opposition labor movement have quit.

"The three are from the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), which played a key role in protests which ousted the former president... the junior transport minister, Anouar Ben Gueddour, has said he and two other ministers, Abdeljelil Bedoui and Houssine Dimassi, are leaving. All three are members of the UGTT."

Meanwhile, it appears that the army are more and more emerging as protectors of the protesters against the police and internal security establishment, something that could lead to the military taking an important role in crafting a new Tunisian order (something I plan to write about later today). Kristen tweets that "people are laying flowers on army tanks." The BBC's Lyse Doucet writes: "Extraordinary scene earlier..army stood between protestors & police. Told police to move back. Crowds cheered. Some hugged soldiers."

Issandr El Amrani has a very nice piece in The Daily Beast on how ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's wife Laila ("a coiffeur who affected the airs of a queen") became a focal point of protestor anger:

"Laila herself ran the family business like a cross between a mafia don and a marriage maker. Conscious of the Trabelsi's humble background, she cemented alliances by marrying her relatives to more established families from the Tunisian business world and bourgeoisie. She meddled in the affairs of the country's elite like Joan Collins once did on the soap opera Dynasty: forever plotting and scheming to get her way."

Elsewhere, folks are wondering whether the popular uprising in Tunisia will act as a model for opponents of other Arab autocracies to follow. On the one hand, Tunisia hardly had the market cornered on brutality and corruption. But on the other, I have to believe that specific local conditions (that I certainly don't yet understand) played a role in so swiftly bringing Ben Ali down. There have been small protests so far in Jordan, in Oman, in Algeria and in Egypt, but no signs of a spreading wave that is challenging any of these regimes, at least not yet.

Egypt's Al Ahram reports that an unemployed young man set himself on fire in Alexandria today, the third such attempted self-immolation in Egypt, all almost certainly encouraged by the suicide that sparked the Tunisian protests. The despair in the region is real -- but has been present for a long time.

Finally, a horrific suicide attack in Saddam Hussein's home town of TIkrit killed at least 45 people at a police recruiting station, VOA reports (sadly, the death toll is almost certain to be revised upwards). In the early days of the war there was a fair bit of insurgent activity in the area, where many former Baathist officers and family members of Hussein made their home. But the area has been generally much more quiet, both when the insurgency was blazing and now that it's been tamped down, than places like Anbar province, where it always felt like there was more of a religious tinge to the Sunni insurgency. On Monday, Anbar Governer Qassim Abed survived the fourth assassination attempt against him in a year, when a suicide bomb targeted his convoy near the provincial capital.

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