Friday, January 14, 2011

Crisis in Tunisia UPDATE: Coup? Revolution?

Tunisia is being rocked with rioting and the Tunisian president's statements calling for dismissing the government and that he will step down at the end of his term in office in 2014 have fallen on deaf ears.

Demonstrations gave way to rioting as police used live ammunition to quash the demonstrations.
Security forces were seen brutally beating protesters, and the demonstrators fled amid the security show of force.

This comes a day after Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali announced concessions to meet grievances of many of his fellow citizens.

The unrest underscores concerns among Tunisians and in the international community that security forces have been badly overreacting to peaceful gatherings.

Earlier, thousands congregated in front of the Interior Ministry, and chanted slogans such as "Get out!" and "Freedom for Tunisia!"

Haykal Maki, a pro-opposition lawyer who was in the throng, said protesters want a "regime change," the resignation of Ben Ali, and lawsuits addressing the regime's corruption.

Tunisia has been wracked by angry demonstrations, with citizens -- angry with the government's performance -- protesting high unemployment, alleged corruption, rising prices, and a limitations on rights.

The wave of protests was sparked by the suicide of an unemployed college graduate, a man who torched himself in December after police confiscated his fruit cart, cutting off his source of income.

In an address on national TV on Thursday night, Ben Ali addressed the crisis in a speech that came as street unrest percolated and a message purportedly from an al Qaeda affiliate announced its support of protesters.

He vowed to cut prices of basic foodstuffs, to lift censorship and to ensure police do not use live ammunition except in self-defense, and he indicated that he will not run again for president.
The official death toll is 23 thus far, but demonstrators claim that the total is three times that amount and many more have been injured by heavy-handed police tactics. Protesters continue defying the curfew set by the government.

It's interesting that Wikileaks cables have come into play here as well. US cables show concern for corruption within the Tunisian government, and this has vindicated opposition leaders and strengthened their resolve.

There are conflicting reports, but it is possible that a coup or revolution is underway. There are reports that the Tunisian President left the country (possibly to France) while others report that he called an emergency and sacked his cabinet with elections to be held in six months. Most curious is the Jerusalem Post report that the Tunisian Prime Minister has taken power,
which would suggest a coup. Thus far, the Jerusalem Post is the only outlet to report that the Prime Minister has assumed power.

It's a confusing situation to say the least.

Apparently the news that the Prime Minister assumed control was reported by the AP as well, which would confirm the Jerusalem Post reporting.

So what is known about Mohamed Ghannouchi, the Prime Minister who assumed power in the wake of Ben Ali fleeing the country? He's been Prime Minister since 1999 and comes from an economics background. I'm not sure how much autonomy he had under Ben Ali so it's an open question as to what he will do going forward. He seems to be more of a bureaucrat than a leader, although he has been taking a more active role since the crisis first erupted.

Some further thoughts about the Wikileaks documents highlighting the corruption in Tunisia. It isn't all that surprising that the documents make mention of corruption there or elsewhere in the world. Corruption is rampant among most countries around the world - Africa in particular. It shouldn't be surprising that corruption is mentioned.

Still, the leaked documents have less to do with the current situation than the fact that peaceful demonstrators took to the streets over the rising food prices and a situation that was heading towards a Zimbabwe-type finish when Ben Ali's forces started firing on the demonstrators causing riots. The situation came to a head when Tunisian forces opened fire on demonstrators - the Wikileaks documents didn't come into play. From that point on, it became a struggle for survival.

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