Maltese air traffic controllers have said that Ben Ali is bound for Paris. Mohamed Ghannouchi, now the interim president, declared that since the president is temporarily unable to exercise his duties, it has been decided that the prime minister will exercise the presidential duties. The state of emergency announced by the president this afternoon is still on, enforced throughout the country, with curfews from 5pm to 7am. Emergency measures mean that gatherings of more than 3 people during the day are banned, and the police have the right to shoot anyone who fails to comply.
It is clear that the regime wants to use the abdication of Ben Ali to crack down. They want to preserve the structure of the regime even though its most unpopular figure has gone. The revolution is now faced with a series of choices: will it press forward and get rid of the whole regime and force a democratic solution? Will it go beyond a full democratic revolution and begin a social revolution that will be able to tackle the economic issues which began the revolution in the first place: unemployment, inflation and poverty?
As Friday's developments show, the revolution certainly has the power to challenge the whole Tunisian social structure. What happened today? More than 10,000 demonstrators gathered in greater Tunis Friday morning following the call for a general strike by the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT). Students joined the protest in massive numbers.
The protesters started their march from Mohamed Ali square, passing across Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the main artery of the capital. They pushed through police lines placed along the way and managed to reach, for the first time ever, the headquarters of the Ministry of Interior where they gathered in front of heightened security presence that surrounded the building.
Men and women, young and old, sang the national anthem and chanted slogans demanding "freedom and a national government," and called for President Ben Ali to quit. Other slogans were "The Interior Ministry is a ministry of terror," "tribute to the blood of martyrs" and "no to the Trabelsi (family of the wife of the president) who looted the country."
By late morning the demonstration was dispersed by the police with tear gas. Army tanks were deployed in front of the Ministry of Interior, while security forces chased down young demonstrators in the stairs of a residential building and of a mall, where they have withdrawn. The atmosphere on Habib Bourguiba Avenue was unbearable because of the tear gas as police reinforcements arrived.
Demonstrations spread all around the country, in Sidi Bouzid, a city in the south west where the crisis began a month ago, 1,500 people marched and chanted "Ben Ali out" while at Regueb, close to Sidi Bouzid, 700 people also raised slogans hostile to the president. In Kairouan, a city in the centre of the country, as well as Gafsa, a town in the south-west, demonstrators also shouted "Ben Ali out," according to union sources.
Following the general strike called by the UGTT and its repression by the regime, President Ben Ali decided to sack his government and to call new elections in six months. The events of the day happened despite his televised speech the previous night, in which he said that he has understood the Tunisian people.
It was the third time since the beginning of the movement, which started on 17th December and which has now caused the death of 66 people according to unions and human rights groups, that he addressed the people through a televised speech. The tone and the content of his speech were clearly different and a feeling of resentment in Ben Ali’s voice was clearly perceptible. He also called for a ceasefire, adding that he has understood the demands about unemployment, the demands about basic necessities, and the political demands for more freedoms.
He attempted to assure people that he was "misled" on the analysis of the social crisis and said that he enjoined the composition of an independent investigation committee that would establish the "responsibilities" of everyone and every single party involved in the violence. He ordered prices slashed on sugar, milk and bread, as well as an increase in the budget of social support to the people, while promising total freedom of information and complete access to internet.
As a result of this speech, websites that are normally blocked in Tunisia, including Dailymotion and YouTube, were working again. Ben Ali declared that he had issued orders to the Interior Minister that no more bullets are to be fired on protesters, unless security forces were under threat. He said that he would not accept another drop of Tunisian blood to be spilt. He also declared that the 75-year age limit on presidential candidates should remain untouched, and that therefore he would not change the constitution to run for a sixth mandate in 2014, himself being already 74 years old.
Early this morning, the Tunisian Foreign Minister on French radio said the establishment in his country of a national unity government was "quite feasible" and "very normal". The mobilisation and the demonstrations of the day have shown the poor results these declarations had on the determination of the people to go on with the protests.
But many were left asking how relevant the words of a dictator are when he has not listened to the people, jailing or exiling many opponents for more than 23 years? The events of the day show how irrelevant Ben Ali’s promises for more freedom were: the demonstrations in Tunis were dispersed with tear gas and protesters shot by security forces; people were assured he would not run for a new presidential mandate in 2014 and respect the constitution; but this is the same man that changed the constitution in 2002 through a so-called “referendum” and won with 99% of the votes to allow an unlimited number of presidential terms.
And although he called for a ceasefire declaring he didn't want to see any more Tunisian blood, after his speech 13 civilians were killed by security forces in Tunis and its suburbs, according to medical sources. In Tunis a journalist was also hit in the leg by police gunfire as rioting youths clashed with police, according to witnesses present at the scene.
Ben Ali has pursued a policy that has condemned him to failure. We have already talked of the brutality and the absence of democracy of this regime, as well as its economic failure, leaving one-third of those under 30 without employment, while graduates represent 50 percent of the unemployed.
One of the main sins of this regime is its corruption, especially concerning the Trabelsi family, to which the wife of the President belongs. His daughters married four of the wealthiest heirs in the country. His second wife, Leila, symbolises the greed of the family in the eyes of the Tunisian population. His brother, Belhacen Trabelsi, who married the daughter of a leading Tunisian boss, took control of a private bank through the intervention in his favor of the governor of the central bank.
The Tunisian people know all these things, and this is why the Trabelsi family has been a target for demonstrators, not only in slogans but as well in direct actions. Several properties, including businesses and industries belonging to the Trabelsi family across the country, have been physically attacked by demonstrators. The wife of the president, Leila Trabelsi, fearing the fall of the regime and a Ceausescu scenario, had actually left the country with her daughter yesterday before her husband's speech.
President Ben Ali understood that he could not to rely indefinitely on the security forces to crush the movement because the vast majority of the country is now opposing the authoritarian regime. Moreover, according to some opposition sources, the Army Chief of Staff, General Rashid Ammar has been sacked by the president a few days ago. He reportedly refused to order the soldiers to quell the riots and expressed reservations about excessive use of force, sources said.
He was replaced by military intelligence chief Ahmed Chbir, according to information which could not be confirmed officially. President Ben Ali will also not be able to count on long term Western support to maintain its authoritarian regime. The imperialist powers are once again guilty of silence in the face of the repression of the Tunisian people by the security forces. The West has continued to show its disregard for human rights when it comes to a friendly authoritarian regime.
People have understood that they cannot trust the words of Ben Ali. Now he is gone, but the regime is still in place. So questions remain: is the departure of Ben Ali enough and can the Tunisian people trust his counterparts now in power? Is a change in the structure of the regime enough?
Clearly price cuts, more freedom of information and internet access were not enough to appease the frustration and anger of the Tunisian people. This is why the nationwide protest movement continued today. Will the departure of Ben Ali from power and the call for elections in six months time appease the Tunisian people? Nothing is less sure; people do not believe in the sincerity of Ben Ali’s counterparts, although the ex-president was the main target of demonstrators' slogans. The coming days will be crucial, as well as the reaction of the movement to these new elements.
Ben Ali declared last night that the situation today necessitates profound change. For once he is right, and this profound change has been partially achieved with his departure. But his counterparts also need to resign from power now, not in 2014, as the Tunisian people demonstrating in the streets reiterated today.
Can fair and democratic elections be held in an authoritarian regime, even a weak and shaken one? Is it a trick of the counterparts of the regime to put an end to the resistance of the Tunisian people and stay in power? Or is this a sincere call for a democratisation of the regime? This is for the Tunisian people and the movement to decide.
What is undeniable is that the Tunisian people achieved a fantastic success in pushing Ben Ali out of power; the regime is injured, but it still exists. We have observed a change in the structure of the authoritarian regime, but not a social revolution. The revolution is not completed until the fall of this regime and until the economic system that condemns Tunisians to poverty and unemployment has been overthrown.
People of Tunisia have to decide where to take the struggle now. Since 1989 many revolutionary upheavals have resulted in transitions from dictatorship to democracy - Eastern Europe in 1989, South Africa in 1992, Indonesia in 1998, Serbia in 2000. But the new "democratic" leaders continued to exploit class differences and enforce poverty, inequality and unemployment. The task of the Tunisian revolution, with one of the best organized working classes in the Arab world at its heart, is to meet the challenge of social exploitation as well as political oppression.
Workers and students have definitely shown that they are the power of tomorrow in Tunisia. They have shaped this movement of protest and accumulated victories over a brutal and authoritarian regime. They are definitely able to shape a true social and democratic Tunisia in the future. The “Jasmin Revolution” as we now call the movement of protest in Tunisia, has never been so close to achieving a complete revolution.
2.30pm, Tunisian Embassy, 29 Princes Gate
London SW7 1QG
Speakers include Jeremy Corbyn and Mohammed Ali.
Miriyam Aouragh (Oxford University, author Palestine Online)
Mohamed Ali (Islam Channel, former political prisoner in Tunisia)
Joseph Daher (Counterfire)
Date: Thursday 20th January
Place: Room 3C, University of London Union, Malet Street, London WC1 (nearest tubes, Euston, Euston Square, Russell Square)
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