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.

Hassene Dridi/AP Photo
People chant during a demonstration in Tunis, Tunisia, against high prices and unemployment, Saturday Jan.8.

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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.

Al Jazeera broadcast unverified video footage claiming to be from Saturday night's violence and its aftermath. Tunisia is currently under a government-ordered media blackout, Al Jazeera 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.

US State Department cables published by Wikileaks last month may have thrown fuel on the fire, by showing that US diplomats privately hold similar opinions of Tunisia's leadership as many Tunisians.

"Whether it's cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali's family is rumored to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants," one cable from 2008 said.

A cable from 2009 depicted the lavish mansion of Ben Ali's son-in-law and his wife, complete with an infinity pool, frozen yogurt flown in from Saint Tropez, and a caged pet tiger that consumes four chickens a day.

The US said Jan. 7 it had summoned the Tunisian ambassador in Washington to express concern over the unrest and Tunisia's crackdown on social media, according to the Associated Press.

A Le Monde interview with a member of the "Tunisian Pirate Party" referred to as "Sofiene" revealed a cat-and-mouse game between government censors and Internet freedom fighters and their foreign allies. Protesters are using Facebook mirror sites, proxy servers, and other means to outwit censors and get out their message, reported the French daily, an excerpt of which the Monitor translated for our non-francophone readers:

State censorship will increase, but counter-censorship is now strong. Tunisians are more and more informed, and demand information. Censorship only works if people self-censor and are afraid, or aren't interested in the news.

Today, that paradigm has changed. Unemployment was the main cause of protests, but the Tunisian people feel the need to free themselves, inform themselves and above all, decide their own future. They only thing that holds them back is fear.

But when one sees the symbols of courage of recent days – the self-immolation, those killed by bullets – and one realizes that we have our backs to the wall, the fear diminishes. People are protesting, daring finally to talk among themselves. And that, no censor can stop.

Gawker.com posted on how the hacker-activist group "Anonymous," which gained fame for its support of Wikileaks, has also declared info-war on Tunisia. Their antics so far have included defacing the Tunisian prime minister's website.

The Economist wrote that the current unrest was unlikely to oust Tunisia's leadership or change its political system, but could serve as a warning for Arab leaders who were increasingly "out of touch" with average citizens.

Prof. Alexander, the Tunisia expert, was also pessimistic that the current protests would lead to real change. "Another long, slow slide toward chaos could simply set the stage for another Ben Ali – another unelected president who seizes power at the top and changes little below it."

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