/ 14 January 2011

Tunisian president suggests he won’t seek new term

Tunisian President Suggests He Won't Seek New Term

Tunisia’s autocratic president, facing deadly riots that have rocked his nation, ordered prices on food staples slashed and suggested he will leave the presidency — but not until 2014.

President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in a televised speech on Thursday night, also pledged to end internet censorship and to open up the political playing field in a country where he has allowed little public criticism for the past 23 years.

Pent-up anger at unemployment, and at a leadership many see as controlling and corrupt, has exploded into protests and clashes with police over the past few weeks. At least 23 have been killed, possibly dozens more.

A protester was fatally shot and a journalist was hit in the leg by police gunfire on Thursday as rioting youths clashed with authorities in Tunisia’s capital, witnesses said.

The second day of violence in the heart of Tunis sharply escalated a conflict between protesters and an authoritarian government that appears more and more willing to use force to put down its greatest challenge in at least a generation.

Calling for a “ceasefire,” Ben Ali told his nation, “I have understood you.”

“I won’t accept that another drop of blood of a Tunisian be spilled,” he said. He said he had issued orders to the interior minister that no bullets be fired on protesters, unless security forces are under threat.

Prices slashed
He also ordered prices slashed on sugar, milk and bread.

Significantly, he said the 75-year age limit on presidential candidates should remain untouched. That would mean Ben Ali, who is 74 and has never faced serious opposition for the presidency, would not be able to run for a sixth term in 2014.

After his speech, the main avenue of the capital, filled with police during the day, was full of horn-honking and crowds despite a curfew imposed because of the violence. It was unclear whether it was an officially organised display.

The unprecedented violence that has rocked this nation has revealed deep anger against autocratic Ben Ali, who has clamped down on civil liberties, jailed opponents and tightly controlled the media during 23 years of rule in the Mediterranean tourist haven.

Online media and social networks have helped spread the outrage since a desperate young graduate tried to set himself on fire in a provincial town last month. That incident touched off protests around the country that turned into increasingly violent clashes with police before reaching the capital this week.

Social networks also helped spread United States diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks describing corruption in Tunisia. Many ordinary Tunisians who have complained of corruption for years felt vindicated to see the cables.

On Thursday, rioters hurled stones at trams and government buildings in Tunisia’s capital. The smell of tear gas filled the air, and so many stones littered the streets that it was difficult to walk through the city, normally quiet and tightly controlled.

In one clash near the state radio headquarters in central Tunis, police fired on protesters with bullets, two witnesses said. One protester was hit by a sniper on the balcony of a building overlooking the violence, said witness Hassene Ayadi, who lives in the surrounding La Fayette neighbourhood.

In the melee, a US journalist was wounded in the leg, according to another witness who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concerns for his security. The witness said police did not appear to be targeting the journalist, who was taken to the Charles Nicolles Hospital.

The journalist’s identity and employer were not immediately clear. The US Embassy would not comment, citing privacy considerations.

Unions, meanwhile, announced a general strike for Friday in Tunis and some other regions.

The International Federation of Human Rights Leagues, known by its French acronym FIDH, said Thursday it has tallied 66 dead in the unrest, including seven people who killed themselves. French and Swiss citizens visiting their native country were among those killed, the two European governments said.

Al-Qaeda’s offshoot in the region appeared to be trying to capitalise on the unrest. In a message broadcast on extremist forums, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Abdelmalek Droukdel, offered support for protesters in Tunisia.

There has been no indication of a militant Islamist role in the rioting. The US calls Tunisia a strong ally in the fight against international Islamist terror groups, which Ben Ali has over the years claimed threaten the nation.

European governments warned citizens about travel in Tunisia, where the tourism industry is the bulk of the economy.

The European Union has complained about the disproportionate use of force in a country that is considered an oasis of calm compared to its neighbours, Algeria and Libya. – Sapa-AP