Caving under sweeping protests against spiralling food prices, Tunisia’s government has been dismissed and parliament dissolved.
The move comes despite Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s announcement during a late night televised address on Thursday that he would step down from his post in 2014 and push for greater freedoms and reforms.
The Tunisian opposition had welcomed the Presidential address, but there were enough skeptics among the country’s opinion makers who either counselled a wait-and-see approach or called for an escalation of protests. Despite Mr. Ben Ali’s olive branch, fresh demonstrations erupted on Friday in Tunis and in other parts. Police clashed heavily with protesters outside the interior ministry headquarters in Tunis. Gunshots were heard and police struck with tear gas grenades,
causing protesters to flee from the immediate vicinity. However, the protesters reassembled shortly afterwards and starting pelting stones, leading to running battles with the police which fired more teargas rounds. The clashes started earlier on Friday when crowds assembled shouting “No to Ben Ali, the uprising continues," AFP reported.
In the western city of Sidi Bouzid, the origin of nearly month-long protests, thousands chanted “Ben Ali out", the agency said.
Rioting has been rife in Tunisia for nearly a month after an unemployed educated youth, driven into selling vegetables set himself ablaze after officials prevented him for pursuing his trade. Apart from surging food prices, the denial of civil liberties and tainted elections has left a deep seated reservoir of discontent among various sections of the people, analysts say. Tunisia’s large tech-savvy middle class which has been miffed by the country’s mainstream politics has also deepened the protests. The Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al Yawm has pointed out that nearly 18.6 percent of Tunisians are on Facebook, a penetration that is higher than Germany’s.
Sixty-six people have died since the protests began, the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights has tallied. Of these seven committed suicide in the wake of heavy unemployment and economic difficulties.
The Lebanese daily in Arabic, Al Akhbar has reported that ahead of Mr. Ben Ali’s address, cracks had begun to emerge in the Tunisian military. The daily said that the Tunisian Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Rashid Ammar, who was subsequently sacked, had on Wednesday refused to order the Tunisian army to use force against the protestors.
In his address Mr. Ben Ali, who has been in power for 23 years, said he would not seek re-election in 2014. Apart from offering greater freedoms, he promised investigations into the killing of protesters during the wave of demonstrations that have rocked Tunisia since December 17.
Soon after the address, Taoufik Ayachi, an opposition figure, and Naji Baghouri, a former journalists' union chief, made a surprising appearance on television. Formerly blocked websites, including YouTube, Dailymotion and the site for French newspaper Le Monde, became accessible, Reuters reported.
Welcoming the main thrust of the President’s address, opposition leader Mohammed Nejib Chebbi, said it was a “positive fact” that Mr. Ben Ali has decided not to run for the presidency again. But dismissing the President’s offer, human rights activist Mohamed Abbou asserted that Mr. Ben Ali was "fooling the Tunisians with promises that have no tomorrow".