Fresh protests, violence in Tunisia

February 19, 2011

Disgraced Tunisian foreign minister Ahmed Ounaies resigned on February 13 from the interim government set up after dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali resigned on January 14 in the face of huge protests.

The government has introduced fresh reforms as protests for democracy and economic justice continue in the north African country.

Ounaies, a former diplomat whose appointment to the interim government was announced on January 27, described French foreign minister Michelle Alliot-Marie as “above all a friend of Tunisia”.

The French media have revealed Alliot-Marie has been linked with Tunisian businesspeople and allies of Ben Ali. They include Aziz Miled, whose private jet Alliot-Marie admitted to using on a holiday in Tunisia in December.

The comments by Ounaies angered many Tunisians. In response, Tunisian foreign ministry staff went on strike and rallied in protest against Ounaies, said on February 13.

Many Tunisians have been angered by the role of the French government in supporting Ben Ali before his overthrow. Alliot-Marie has faced calls for her resignation after she offered aid to Ben Ali’s government in its dying days.

Customs officials at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris blocked a plane full of tear gas canisters and other police equipment, which Ben Ali ordered just before he resigned, the British Guardian said on January 19.

The situation in Tunisia remains turbulent as protesters continue to call for a clean sweep of former members of Ben Ali’s Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party from the interim government.

The government broke up ongoing protests outside Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi's office in Tunis in late January. However, protesters have continued to mobilise in the regional towns and cities — where the revolution began — spurred on by the wave of protests rocking the Arab world.

In the north-western town of Kef, protesters rallied outside the police station. They demanded the local police chief, Khaled Ghazouani, step down for abuses of power. said on February 6 that Ghazouani enraged the crowd by slapping a female protester. The police station was burned down. Police opened fire on the protesters, resulting in at least two deaths.

The interior ministry reported that Ghazouani was taken into custody after the military was sent in to quell the violence.

Fahem Boukadous, a member of the Communist Worker's Party of Tunisia (PCOT), has also reported a protest of 80,000 and general strike in the major city of Sfax.

Two members of the security forces in Sidi Bouzid, the regional city where the wave of demonstrations that toppled Ben Ali began, were arrested after the deaths of two protesters on February 4.

Responding to widespread allegations that the violence has been initiated by mobs linked to Ben Ali and the RCD, security forces and the military arrested a “group of armed and dangerous criminals ... suspected of involvement in suspicious activity and smuggling and corruption operations in cooperation with relatives of the ex-president”, Reuters said on February 10.

In response to popular pressure, the interim government says it will hold elections within six months and will take action against figures in the security forces linked to Ben Ali.

Steps have also been taken to freeze the assets of Ben Ali and his family. The official news agency, Tunis Afrique Presse, said on February 11 that the previous day the government announced “practical mechanisms” to recover “the smuggled and plundered funds and assets” of the former regime.

The government said it would redirect the resources towards investment in impoverished rural areas.

It also announced on February 1 that it would sign several international conventions on civil and political rights, enforced disappearances and the death penalty.

Interior minister Fahrat Rajhi announced on February 6 that the RCD was suspended as a party. This was a key demand of the protests. Since Ben Ali's ousting, the suspension of the RCD has been one of the key demands of anti-government demonstrations.

However, many of the protesters' demands, including the resignation of Prime Minister Ghannouchi for his role in Ben Ali’s regime and economic measures to develop impoverished economic areas, are yet to be fulfilled.

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