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Truth or tactics in Tunisia? Ben Ali’s historic speech

Posted on Friday, 14 January 2011 12:49

After weeks of rioting, Tunisia’s president took to the airwaves on 13 January to promise new liberties and announce he would not run in the 2014 election. His speech has been cautiously welcomed and thousands have gathered on the streets of Tunis, but doubts remain if Tunisia will see any real change.

The historic speech delivered by President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali on 13 January has been greeted with as much hope as suspicion by Tunisians. What if the new liberties the president announced are just temporary, a bait set to disarm the protest movement that has gripped Tunisia for the last month?

On Thursday evening the president spoke on television after four weeks of rioting and bloody repression during which over 50 people are reported to have been killed. Ben Ali, who has been head of state since 1987 when he won power in a bloodless coup, announced that he would not run again for the Presidency in 2014. He said he would not touch the constitutional age limit, fixed at 77 years old. He is now 74, meaning he could not run as a candidate in 2014.

Ben Ali laid out a series of democratisation measures for the Tunisian regime, promising democracy, free elections, the right to protest, freedom of the press and of association. He also announced the lowering of prices on bread, milk, sugar, oil and other basic food items and the creation of a genuinely independent anti-corruption commission.

The range of reaction to Ben Ali’s speech has been broad. Despite an imposed curfew, groups of people ran into the streets, honking their horns as if to celebrate a football victory. This raised suspicions among others who wondered if it was Ben Ali’s supporters behind the wheels of the cars.

On the contrary, protesters gathered in front of the police station of d’El Nasr in Tunis, chanting “rather bread and water than Ben Ali”. The policemen didn’t complain. Hostility to the regime had rushed through social networking site Facebook, where many had posted messages with a loud ‘Go!’ aimed at the Tunisian president.

The dominant sentiment among Tunisians is one of a profound perplexity at the president’s spectacular volte-face. “He is knocked out, he’s got no choice,” is the phrase on everyone’s lips. On Friday, thousands of people gathered in central Tunis calling for the president to resign. The energy built up during the protests of the last few weeks is still running strong.

Prudence in the political class

The reaction has been prudent among politicans. “The positive thing, is that the president has decided not to run,” Mohammed Néjib Chebbi, the historical leader of the Parti Démocratique Progressiste (PDP), told the press. On 14 January, foreign affairs minister Kamel Morjane told French radio station Europe 1 that the formation of a government of national unity was “very doable” and even “normal”.

“This speech [of Ben Ali] has opened up the horizons”, said Mustapha Ben Jaafar, head of the forum for democratic work and liberty, a member of Socialist International. But he added that “we have to see this in action”.

“It’s positive – the speech answered questions which have raised by our party,” said Ahmed Ben Brahim, chief of Ettajid, an ex-communist party. The human rights activist Bouchra Bel Haji called it “an historic speech”, explaining that Ben Ali has “liberated us and he has liberated himself”.

Others no longer have any confidence in Ben Ali. For the lawyer and human rights activist Mohamed Abbou, the president was “mocking Tunisians with promises about tomorrow”.

It is hard to deny that a liberalisation of the regime has not begun, however timidly. Nearly all internet sites are accessible, marking an end to the web censorship known as ‘Anmar 404’, a reference to the error message well-known by Tunisian internet users. But there is still no news about Hamma Hammami, a member of Parti Communiste des Ouvriers de Tunisie, who was arrested on 12 January by the president’s security forces. This gives weight to the arguments of those who believe that Ben Ali’s speech was just a form of manipulation, as well as those who want to provoke early elections.

Tunis 7, between activism and corruption

Another reason why many Tunisians fear Ben Ali’s new liberties are just a mirage is the behaviour of public television station Tunis 7, where absurdity and indecency is mixed up with hope and doubt. Police even killed two more people in Kairouan during the president’s speech. Just as it is unclear whether the horn honking in the streets was sincere or spontaneous, a programme on the theme of corruption was a quasi-unreal spectacle.

Both Belhassen Trabelsi, brother in-law of the president and head of the Kathago group, and Sami Fehri, director of Cactus Production, a subsidiary of Kathago, were invited into the studio. It was particularly incongruous to see Ben Hassan Trebelsi – one of the leaders most often accused of corruption – talk about the regime’s poor governance and pronounce that things had to change. But the show became obscene when the participants declared that the mother of Mohamed Bouaziz, the young graduate who sparked the wave of protests when he set himself on fire on 18 December after police confiscated his vegetable stall, should be whooping with joy in the knowledge that her son had become a martyr.

In parallel, a new programme gave a voice for the first time to people such as the president of the human rights league, Mokhtar Trifi, and the former head of the journalists union Naji Beghourinaji. Appeals were also launched for the liberation of Hammami, and also of Fahem Boukadous, a journalist who is in prison after having covered a strike in the centre-west mining region of Gafsa.

It should soon become clear whether or not anything has changed in Tunisia, and if the regime is actually democratising or if the new liberties are just a temporary solution to stop the protests.

This article was first published in our sister publication, Jeune Afrique.

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