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Africa

Ben Ali rules out 'presidency for life,' vows less police violence, more press freedom

Video by Nicholas RUSHWORTH

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2011-01-14

Facing criticism from inside and outside Tunisia, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has announced that he will not change the constitution to seek re-election when his term is up in 2014.

Amid mounting international concern over protests that have killed dozens in Tunisia, Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali announced Thursday that he would not alter the constitution so that he could run again for the presidency when his term is up in 2014.

In a televised address spoken – in a first for the Tunisisan president – in local dialect and not classical Arabic, Ben Ali said: “I repeat now, no presidencies for life. I refuse to touch the constitution.”

The Tunisian constitution states that no one over 75 years of age can run for the presidency. There had been widespread speculation that the 74-year-old Ben Ali, who became president in 1987, would have the constitution amended to allow a bid for another term.

In his speech, Ben Ali demanded that security forces stop using firearms against protesters.

He also vowed to slash food prices, and said he had “decided on total liberty for the press and to no longer close Internet sites”.

Ben Ali avoided taking full responsibility for the turmoil in Tunisia, saying that he had been "deceived” by advisors. “I understand the Tunisians, I understand their demands”, he said in an emotional tone. “I am sad about what is happening now after 50 years of service to the country, military service, all the different posts, 23 years of the presidency.”

The speech was well received by Tunisia’s main opposition leader, Najib Chebbi. "This speech is important politically and corresponds to the expectations of civil society and the opposition," Chebbi, founder of the PDP party, told Reuters. “Frankly I did not expect that he would touch on all these problems”.

Tunisians calling for ‘end of the whole system’

Protesters took to the streets in Tunisia in mid-December following the dramatic suicide of an unemployed youth. The demonstrators have decried unemployment and government repression in the country, and have called for an end to Ben Ali’s rule.

Tunis authorities say a total 23 civilians have been killed since the start of the unrest, a figure disputed by the International Federation for Human Rights, which says the number is more likely around 66. Reports surfaced on Thursday that two more protesters were shot dead in clashes with police in the Tunisian town of Sliman, about 40 km (25 miles) south of the capital.

Twenty-three years after coming to power, the Tunisian president is facing harsh criticism from across Tunisia’s social spectrum, as well as from outside the country, and some observers are wondering what, if any political future, awaits the leader.

“No one believes in this government any longer. From the elite of Tunis to the lowly worker who earns 80 euros a month,” said Vincent Geisser, a researcher at the Paris-based Institute for Arab and Muslim Studies.

“Given the politicization and radicalization of the movement, the fact that it is spreading to other cities, and the participation of multiple sectors of society – the country's only trade union, political parties, white collar professionals including lawyers – it was obvious the president’s statements would not convince Tunisians,” Geisser told france24.com.

In an interview with France 24 on Wednesday, Raouf Najar, Tunisia’s ambassador to France, recognized that his country’s economy was at present unable to absorb the thousands of university graduates that finished their studies every year.

He nonetheless denounced what he said was a campaign of disinformation launched by the foreign media against his government. “The police have not been shooting at pacific protesters,” Najar said. “In general [the shootings] were at night, while the youths were attacking police stations with Molotov cocktails.”

According to Geisser, the removal of the interior minister, who is also the head of the police, is a consequence of the street protests, but also of pressure from Washington. On Tuesday Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the US was concerned about the instability in Tunisia, as well as “what seem to be the underlying concerns of the people.”

More concessions from the government could appease allies like the US, but may be too little too late for ordinary Tunisians. "Whatever happens in the coming days, the population has set the bar very high. It wants to see the end not just of President Ben Ali, but of the whole system," said Geisser.
 

Date created : 2011-01-13

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