Friday, January 14, 2011

Mass Tunis protests demand leader's exit

Thousands of demonstrators are on the streets of the Tunisian capital, calling for the president to stand down immediately.
On Thursday night, Mr Ben Ali - who has governed Tunisia since 1987 - announced he would stand down in 2014.
His speech came after weeks of protests that have left at least 23 dead.
A BBC correspondent in Tunis says security forces have surrounded protesters there but have not intervened.
Between 6,000 and 7,000 people joined a demonstration outside the interior ministry.
The numbers are unprecedented, says the BBC's Adam Mynott, who is at the scene. Tunisia has not seen such protests in the 23 years since Mr Ben Ali came to power.
Mr Ben Ali pledged to take action on food prices and end internet censorship
Human rights groups say more than 60 people have died in weeks of unrest across the country, as security forces cracked down on protests over corruption, unemployment and high food prices.
The demonstrators have called on Mr Ben Ali to go, saying Tunisia cannot have true democracy while he remains in charge.
This is in reaction to the president's pledge to quit in 2014, our correspondent says, but probably not the reaction he was expecting.
Trade unions called on people to observe a general strike on Friday.
There is now a public clamour for change, Adam Mynott says, which has become a tide which will be very difficult to hold back.
A BBC Arabic reporter in Tunis, Mohamed Ballut, says protests are also taking place in other cities, including Sidi Bouzid, where the protests began four weeks ago.
Tourists going home
Meanwhile, UK tour operator Thomas Cook is pulling out all 1,800 of its customers currently on holiday in Tunisia.
Thomas Cook and another holiday company, Thomson First Choice, are cancelling departures to Tunisia scheduled for Sunday 16 January. However, Thomson are not bringing home visitors already in Tunisia.
Tourism is key to Tunisia's economy and an important source of jobs.
The UK, the US and France are among the countries advising against non-essential travel to Tunisia.
"The situation is unpredictable and there is the potential for violence to flare up, raising the risk of getting caught up in demonstrations," the UK Foreign Office said in its latest travel advisory.
In his speech on Thursday night, Mr Ben Ali said there was "no presidency for life" in Tunisia.
However, our correspondent says there is a degree of scepticism as to whether deeds will follow on from words.
Tunisian commentator Intissar Kherigi told the BBC Mr Ben Ali's time in office had been marked by continued infringements of human rights.
"During this time, there's been sustained human rights violations; torture, disappearance of journalists, of political opposition, all banning of all independent organisations, trade unions," he asserted.
"Not a single human rights organisation is allowed to operate freely in the country... So unfortunately the record does not really give us much hope."
Mr Ben Ali, 74, is only Tunisia's second president since independence from France in 1956. He was last re-elected in 2009 with 89.62% of the vote.
In Thursday night's speech he said he did not intend to amend the constitution to remove the upper age limit for presidential candidates, which would have allowed him to stand for a further term in 2014.
The president, who earlier this week had blamed the unrest on "terrorists", also said he felt "very, very deep and massive regret" over the deaths of civilians in the protests.
He said he had ordered troops to stop firing on protesters except in self defence, and pledged to take action on food prices, which have gone up fourfold in recent weeks.
Afterwards, Mr Ben Ali's supporters took to the streets of Tunis, cheering and sounding car horns.
In a further overture, foreign minister Kamel Mourjane said it would be possible to form a government of national unity involving the opposition.
Speaking to France's Europe 1 radio on Friday, he also held out the possibility of early parliamentary elections.
Tunisia's main opposition leader, Najib Chebbi, called the president's announcement "very good", but said he was awaiting "concrete details".
Mustapha Ben Jaafar, head of the Democratic Forum for Work and Liberties, said the speech "opens up possibilities".
But human rights activist Mohamed Abbou said he believed President Ben Ali was "fooling the Tunisians with promises that have no tomorrow".
'Educate workforce'
On Thursday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Arab leaders they would face growing unrest unless they enacted real economic and political reform.
Mrs Clinton was speaking in Doha at the end of a four-nation visit to the Gulf.
"It is hard to have the kind of economic climate that is needed without making some of the social reforms that are required," she said.
"Put aside the critical issue of political freedoms, human rights and democracy that we have been discussing, focus on social conditions.
If you do not have an educated workforce, it is very hard to grow the economy to the extent that it should grow."
The protests in Tunisia began in mid-December in the southern town of Sidi Bouzid, after an unemployed graduate set himself on fire when police tried to prevent him from selling vegetables without a permit. He died a few weeks later.
Earlier this week, Mr Ben Ali sacked his interior minister and promised to create 300,000 new jobs.

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