Tunisia protesters defy curfew in capital

The protests in Tunisia over high unemployment rates continued in the capital overnight, with another death and a call for a strike as government appeasement efforts failed.

AP Photo
In this frame grab image taken from amateur video and acquired by APTN, protesters are seen amid a burning vehicle in Douz, Tunisia, Wednesday Jan. 12. A witness in the central city of Douz said there were two deaths at a protest there Wednesday.

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Protesters defied a curfew in Tunisia’s capital overnight, continuing to clash with police in a wave of unrest that has gripped the nation for three weeks and shows no signs of abating.

One man was reported killed in the fighting overnight, the first to die in Tunis since the protests reached the capital Wednesday. Sparked by despair over high unemployment rates, the riots have quickly come to embody the population’s deep anger over government corruption and the lack of political freedom as well. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has ruled one of the most repressive police states in the region for 23 years, but many are now questioning how much longer his rule will last if he is unable to stop the unrest.

Reuters reports that despite a curfew issued in Tunis yesterday, protesters in at least two neighborhoods ransacked buildings and threw rocks at police, who used tear gas and gunshots fired into the air to beat back the crowds. Witnesses reported that a young man died after being shot in the head, and protesters gathered outside his home.

The government says that 23 people have died during the protests, but rights groups say there have been at least 35 to 50 deaths. Mr. Ben Ali has called the protesters terrorists, and government officials accuse a minority of extremists of hijacking protests and acting violently. They say that police have acted in self defense.

Reuters also reports that thousands of people were marching through the streets in Sidi Bouzid, the city in Tunisia’s interior where the protests began when a young man set himself on fire to protest unemployment and his treatment by police. An interactive map of the protests by Al Jazeera shows how they have spread and provides video footage of some events.

One witness said: "It is not just about unemployment any more. It's about freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, all the freedoms."

Bloomberg reports that the military remained deployed on Tunis streets for the second day Thursday, and many businesses remained closed after the curfew ended at 6 am. A Tunis-area labor union has called for a two-hour strike Friday.

In attempts to quell the protests, Tunisia’s prime minister announced Wednesday that the interior minister had been fired, and that the government would release arrested protesters and conduct investigations into corruption. The day before, Ben Ali had promised to provide jobs for Tunisian youth and to create 300,000 new positions by the end of next year.

But these moves have not appeased a population that appears fed up with systemic corruption and repression. As University of Denver Professor Rob Prince reports on Tunisia-focused group blog Nawaat, the motto of the protesters has become “Yezzi Fock,” which means “It’s enough” in Tunisian dialect.

“Enough” refers to the high levels of unemployment in the country, the pervasive corruption, especially of the two ruling families and the decades of seething repression which has kept Zine Ben Ali in power now for 23 years.

The Christian Science Monitor reported Wednesday that the protests in Tunisia are a warning to regional autocratic regimes with similar political and economic situations.

The Tunisia protests, combined with the eruption of riots in neighboring Algeria last week and recent unrest in Jordan, are worrying signs for Cairo. Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, also has a bulging youth population that has a far harder time landing jobs than other segments of society, and a tightly managed political system that has left little room for dissent.

And Foreign Policy reports that rumors – which turned out to be false – of a military coup in Tunisia illustrate the crisis in legitimacy for Ben Ali’s regime.

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