Ben Ali sacks government as state of emergency is called
Issued on: Modified:
Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali dismisses the government and calls for early parliamentary elections as a state of emergency is declared across the country to stem the growing unrest.
Amid increasing chaos, Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali dismissed his government on Friday and called for early legislative elections to be held within six months, state television reported. Tunisian state TV also said Ben Ali had declared a state of emergency.
A curfew which only covered Tunis has been spread to the rest of the country and expanded to cover a 14-hour period beginning at 5:00 pm, Tunisia time, added a government statement carried by a state news agency. The statement also indicated that limits would be placed on how many people could gather at once on the public highway, and gave police and military officers the authority to fire at any suspect.
Earlier in the day, thousands had gathered in the morning along one of the city’s main streets in response to a call for a general strike organised by Tunisia’s only legal trade union.
“Riot police who had surrounded the protesters on both sides of Bourguiba Avenue [one of the capital city’s main streets] hurled tear gas when people started climbing the walls of the Interior Ministry”, Cyril Vanier, FRANCE 24’s special envoy in Tunis, said. He added that the area resembled a “battlefield”.
Hundreds of demonstrators also took to the streets outside the capital, in places like Sidi Bouzid and Gafsa, where anti-authority slogans such as “Ben Ali, get out” could be heard.
Meanwhile, at least 12 more people were said to have been killed in clashes with police in Tunis and the surrounding suburbs late Thursday, according to medical sources. Prior to those reports, the International Federation for Human Rights had put the death toll since the beginning of the riots in mid-December at 66. The wave of unrest was set off when a street vendor lit himself on fire on Dec. 17 after police confiscated his stand.
Reacting to the violence, Tunisia’s ambassador to the Paris-based UNESCO, Mezri Haddad, announced that he was stepping down. “I can no longer vouch for what is going on in my country”, he said on FRANCE 24.
Ben Ali changes his tune
Faced with the protests and criticism coming from both home and abroad, the Tunisian government appeared to be changing its tack. In a televised speech Thursday evening, Ben Ali, who has been president of the North African country since 1987, said he would not change the constitution in a way that would allow him to run for president again.
“The president clearly indicated yesterday that he would pursue a more open approach in regards to the opposition, and it is clear that his administration will be reshuffled”, Tunisian Foreign Affairs Minister Kamel Morjane said on FRANCE 24. “I would not be surprised if the president allowed members of the opposition into his government”.
The president’s conciliatory tone elicited hope in Tunisia and abroad in the hours following the speech.
“We have listened attentively to the measures announced by President Ben Ali intended to restore calm and stop the violence”, Bernard Valero, spokesperson for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told the press. “We encourage a continuation in this direction”.
Meanwhile, the Tunisian opposition suggested they were eyeing a role in running the country. “I am pleasantly surprised”, Nejiib Chebbi, leader of the main opposition party PDP, told FRANCE 24 on Friday. “Now we need to establish a transitional government, because Tunisians can no longer stand the president’s exclusive hold on power”.
Among human rights activists in Tunisia, reaction was mixed. Some welcomed the president’s announcement. “It’s a historic speech”, said Bouchra Bel Haj, a prominent lawyer and human rights activist in Tunisia. But others remained sceptical: “The president is playing Tunisians for fools with these empty promises”, said Mohamed Abbou, a human rights activist.