Amid riots, Tunisia's Ben Ali faces test of legitimacy

With the country in upheaval and criticism of the government pouring in from all quarters, Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali is facing the toughest challenge of his decades-long rule.


WARNING: video may contain disturbing images.

The death toll from nearly four weeks of unrest in Tunisia climbed to 66 on Thursday, according to the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), as President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali failed to calm angry street protests that have spread across the country and rattled the government to its core.

In a bid to appease Tunisians angry over unemployment, corruption and police clampdowns, Ben Ali sacked his interior minister on Wednesday and promised to free most of the people rounded up during the many anti-government protests.


But the move failed to prevent further clashes overnight, during which eight people were killed and another 50 were wounded in the suburbs of the capital Tunis, according to the FIDH.

Tunision authorities say a total 23 civilians have been killed since the start of the unrest, a figure disputed by rights groups and the country's fledgling opposition.

Twenty-three years after coming to power Ben Ali now faces his toughest challenge yet. And as criticism of his government pours in from across Tunisia’s social spectrum, as well as from outside the country, 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.

The unrest was touched off by the dramatic suicide of an unemployed youth, Mohamed Bouzizi, on December 17.

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


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