Tunisians cautious on concessions


After president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s speech, media freedoms felt immediately, but police still shoot at protesters

Aiming to ease tensions, Ben Ali, left, met Abdessalam Jrad, head of Tunisia’s General Labour Union, on Thursday [EPA]

The Tunisian president, responding to widespread unrest over unemployment and a lack of civil liberties, has announced unprecedented concessions to a population he has ruled with strict authoritarian powers for 23 years.
In a televised address on Thursday night, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who has been in power since 1987, vowed not to seek re-election in 2014. He also promised to institute widespread reforms, introduce more freedoms into society, and to investigate the killings of protesters during demonstrations that have spread throughout the country over the past month.
Almost simultaneously, the government appeared to lift its heavy hand from the media, allowing opposition figures onto television and lifting bans on formerly censored websites such as YouTube.
Ben Ali’s about-face was met, at least initially, with limited approval from Tunisia’s opposition.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Tunis on Friday, Najib Chebbi, a former leader of the opposition Progressive Democratic Party and managing editor of the weekly Mawkis newspaper, told Al Jazeera “What we need now is not speeches or compromises, but a mechanism to carry them out.
“The ruling party cannot keep its monopoly on political life. We are under a one-party system and the failure of this system has produced these protests.”

The Progressive Democratic Party holds no seats in parliament, and Chebbi has asked Ben Ali to form a coalition government.

‘Shootings continue

But even as Ben Ali spoke on Thursday, the AFP news agency reported that two more protesters had been killed in central Tunisia. Dozens have died since December 17, when a 26-year-old unemployed university graduate set himself on fire in protest in the town of Sidi Bouzid.

Witnesses told Al Jazeera that two young men were shot and killed in the town of Sliman, though it was unclear whether they were the same two protesters the AFP reported to have died.

The Lebanese social media aggregation website Nawaat posted videos of people who had reportedly been shot by police on Thursday night and taken to a hospital in the Kaireddine neighborhood of the capital.

Video posted by Nawaat appears to shows doctors tending to people shot by Tunisian police the same night Ben Ali ordered security forces to cease fire

In one, men can be seen praying over the body of a dead man whose head is wrapped in white bandages, with a spot of blood showing through.

A younger man who is wounded explains that the police shouted at his group that “they rule this country, and we answered … you don’t rule this country”.

The protesters were peaceful, the man said, but the police fired live ammunition and aimed indiscriminately.

“All the kids are young, 20 to 22 years old. They are students and professionals, not thugs as they say,” he says

“The police provokes the youth so the youth comes out and reacts … This is God’s will, what can we do.”

In another video, a man suffering from a bullet wound dies as a nurse tries to save him.

The Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights said that eight others had been killed in and around Tunis overnight.

The group has tallied 66 deaths since the protests began, and sources told Al Jazeera on Thursday that at least 13 people had been killed in the past two days alone.

The death toll includes seven people who committed suicide in protest over unemployment and economic hardships. The rest were reportedly killed by the Tunisian security forces.

French and Swiss citizens visiting their native country were among those killed, the two European governments said.

Freedoms promised

In his speech, Ben Ali ordered state security forces not to fire at demonstrators and vowed to cut the prices of staples such as sugar, bread, and milk.

“Enough firing of real bullets,” he said. “I refuse to see new victims fall.”

Ben Ali also promised to introduce more freedoms of information, assembly and speech in a society that has grown used to extreme censorship.

After Ben Ali’s speech, changes seemed to occur almost immediately, according to Reuters.

Taoufik Ayachi, an opposition figure, and Naji Baghouri, a former journalists’ union chief, appeared on television – an unheard-of event.

Websites that were formerly blocked, such as YouTube, Dailymotion and the site for French newspaper Le Monde, suddenly became available.

“I understand the Tunisians, I understand their demands. 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,” Ben Ali said. “We need to reach 2014 with proper reconciliation.”

Ben Ali has been elected four times, never with less than 89 per cent of the vote.

In Tunis, following the president’s televised address, crowds ignored a recently imposed curfew and celebrated in the street on Thursday night, waving flags and honking horns. Some chanted Ben Ali’s name.

Ismail Smida, a trade union activist from the city of Tataouine, 500km south of Tunis, told Reuters that “everything has changed” and “there is only joy here now.”

‘Difficult mission’

Amid the excitement of impending social change, many activists greeted Ben Ali’s promises with caution.

“People are still cautious and doubt these words,” one activist told Al Jazeera. “Turning his words into action will be a very difficult mission.”

“The speech opens up possibilities,” Mustapha Ben Jaafar, head of the Democratic Forum for Work and Liberties, told AFP. “[But] these intentions still have to be applied.”

Rafik Ouerchefani, a supporter of the centre-left Ettajdid party, told Al Jazeera that he was sceptical that Ben Ali’s promises would be delivered.

“I am happy with the speech, but let’s not forget the dead,” he said.

He said he was relieved that Ben Ali would not be standing down immediately, as time was needed for the country to prepare for a genuinely democratic election.

After decades of being stifled, he said opposition parties must work to prepare candidates capable of taking over the role of president.

“This is already a major victory, now we must work towards the alternative: what happens post-Ben Ali,” he said.

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