Tunisia: End of an era as President flees

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A Tunisian era has come to an end. “The end of repression, freedom of expression and fight against corruption”; Promises made Thursday by President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali were not enough to pacify Tunisians. Riots in recent weeks have caused the demise of an iron-fist regime that has been in power for 23 years. The Tunisian president is believed to have fled the northern African country.

According to several sources, Tunisian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali has fled the northern African country after an arrangement with the military who have agreed to allow Prime Minister Mohamed Ghanouchi to act as President. Mr. Ghanouchi is reported to have declared on Tunisian national television that his predecessor had handed over power to him temporarily following his “inability” to run the crisis-riddled country.

The anti-Ben Ali regime protests seem to have produced an effect that could not have been fathomed only a few weeks ago. “I have understood you,” Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali repeated several times during a televised speech Thursday evening, the third since mid-December when the crippling student riots that caused the demise of his regime began.

The Tunisian president had promised neither to stand for president in 2014 nor change the Constitution, which sets the age limit to run for the highest office at 75 years. “In 1987 I said that there would be no life presidency. I repeat once more: no president for life. I refuse to amend the Constitution, I will not change the age limit in the Constitution,” the 74 year old President announced in Arabic.

The speech came as Ben Ali’s political machinery seemed to have run out of gas. Tunisians were taken aback when the president said that he had been “misled” about the real situation on the ground while promising that security forces will cease to use live bullets to quell demonstrations. The riots, which were strongly repressed both in Tunis, the capital, the rest of the country, including Sidi Bouzid where the first demonstrations began, had left at least 67 people dead by Thursday evening.

And notwithstanding his announcement that “the situation requires a profound change” while calling for both the government and opposition “to work hand in hand for the good of the country (and) deepen the democratic practice and revitalize pluralism” Tunisians remained skeptical. “He should have called for an election immediately and say, I’m leaving” Belhassen, president of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), told Europe 1 radio.

Army’s disengagement

The Tunisian army had, by Thursday evening, disengaged itself from the political powers that be. The army distanced itself when the Chief of Staff of the Army, General Rashid Ammar, was sacked for refusing to suppress the riots, according to Jeune Afrique. The country’s Interior Minister Rafik Belhaj Kacem had also been sacked for the same reasons.

“Two civilians were killed by police gunfire in the city of Kairouan in central Tunisia, as President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali delivered his speech” Tunisia Watch, a dissident site indicated Friday despite the president’s promise that the firing of live ammunition on civilian demonstrators had been stopped.

“Deepening the democratic practice”

Hoping that calm would return, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali had made another unprecedented declaration revealing the advent of a free press and Internet. “I have decided to allow complete freedom of the press and stop the closing down of websites.” He was wrong.

Indeed, several bloggers and Internet users had been arrested under Ben Ali’s regime. Browsing certain sites or even expressing oneself on the Internet was tantamount to a criminal act in Tunisia. And a 2005 case involving residents of Zarzis, which illustrated the brutal force with which the regime clamped down on ordinary Internet users, remained fresh in the collective memory of Tunisians.

But in a country where freedom of expression has long been non-existent, the Internet has come to represent the guns of freedom for Tunisians. The World Wide Web, alongside its social networks, played a significant role in the propagation of the “freedom” riots. Tunisians can, since Thursday, access several Internet sites that were once banned, including YouTube.

President Ben Ali’s promise to fight against corruption came at a time when his political power was buttressed, inter alia, by “a mafia” clan run by his family. Tunisians remained even more skeptical after his speech.

“When he was elected in 1987, he made many promises which were very similar to what he said yesterday, there has been a terrible crisis of confidence. How can we trust someone who ordered the killing of civilians… and whose family has monopolized all businesses in Tunisia? ” Belhassen argued.

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