9 May 2011. A World to Win News Service. The kind of popular anger that drove out the hated tyrant Ben Ali on 14 January and brought down two successor governments has erupted again in Tunisia.
Since 7 May an overnight curfew has been in force in the capital city and its working class suburbs and three cities in the country's interior after the most violent confrontations since January. The first protests broke out on 5 May following a televised interview in which the recently fired Interior Minister, Farhat Rajhi, a so-called "Mister Clean" whom President Foued Mebazzaa supposedly brought into the government to clear out former regime elements from the security forces, said that he was kicked out for trying to do just that and proclaimed that the president's words were not to be trusted. Most explosively, he warned that the president and armed forces head General Rachid Ammar were discussing the possibility of a military coup if the Constituent Assembly elections scheduled for July do not turn out to their liking.
On 6 May, the crowds that have gathered every Friday afternoon to discuss, debate and make their voices heard on Tunis' grand boulevard Bourguiba turned especially angry. At first the hundreds of protesters, mainly teenagers and university students, occupied the steps of the Municipal Theatre, the scene of many such demonstrations this year. Then they started marching on the nearby Ministry of the Interior, which is kept off-limits by barbed wire and armoured anti-riot vehicles. This has happened repeatedly over the last few months, but this time the crowd was furious and determined and the repression more violent.
The police, omnipresent under the Ben Ali regime and not so often seen on the streets lately, used megaphones to order the demonstrators to disperse and go home. The protesters, in turn, sang the national anthem and chanted "The people want a second revolution!" They called the police hoodlums and cowards, and demanded the resignation of the president. Prime Ministers and cabinets have come and gone in the last few months in attempts to pacify the people, but the president, as the head of state and symbol of the allegedly less tainted people who worked for the corrupt Ben Ali autocracy, is seen as a guarantor of continuity, and thus respected by some and hated by others.
The police fired tear gas grenades and administered beatings to break up the march. Then, when the youth began to regroup after scattering, and fighting back as fiercely as they could with paving stones and whatever else was at hand or in their knapsacks, the police not only charged the youth with their batons, they also chased down and beat demonstrators and others of all social classes who got in their way on the crowded main boulevard and the adjacent side streets. Knocking over street peddlers and scattering their wares, they charged into poorer areas in an expanding arc that eventually covered much of central Tunis. Foot police were accompanied by club-wielding two-man motorcycle teams and the dented armoured cars of the National Guard. Many people were injured, protesting youth, shoppers and strollers alike.
The police also unleashed their fury on the press, beating about 15 Tunisian and international reporters and confiscating cameras. In their pursuit of fleeing journalists they even invaded the premises of La Presse, a newspaper known for its slavish adoration of Ben Ali until he fell and still a very pro-regime news outlet. The national journalists union issued a declaration saying that the regime's intention was not only to stop protests but to cut off the people from a source of their anger – the reporting of events.
The regime has tried to claim that its aim is to protect the anti-Ben Ali "revolution", from which it claims to draw its legitimacy. It frequently alternates brutal moves with various measures meant to to appeal to and appease the people. Typically, after bloodshed on Friday the new Interior Minister promised an investigation into the violence and presented his apologies to the media. He assured the country that his government respected the right to demonstrate and freedom of the press. The government blamed the whole thing on the "irresponsibility" of the former Interior Minister – the Defence Minister claimed it was the former Interior Minister who was endangering the "revolution". That same day a court sentenced a member of the Ben Ali family to prison on drug charges. But many people were not convinced that the country has changed as much as they want it to.
Later that night a National Guard post was burned down in the working class Tunis neighborhood and another one set on fire in the capital suburb Ethadamen, where last January youth rose up to demand that the revolution continue after the fall of Ben Ali. There were also violent protests in the country's harsh interior, including Sidi Bouzid, the city where the upheaval first began last December.
In these especially downtrodden small cities, youth from the countryside are both dissatisfied with tradition and denied full access to what they consider modern life. They are walled off from any future by unemployment and suffocated by sheer boredom in towns where cultural facilities and public services are practically non-existent. No wonder they want to break windows and let in some air. These youth and others who overthrew Ben Ali are impatient to see thorough, society-wide and country-wide change, even if they are far from clear about what that would look like and how it could happen.
Despite its phony "self criticism", the government's police attacked demonstrators again on Saturday in Tunis. Crowds gathered in front of the Interior Ministry chanting, "Tunisians are no longer afraid of tear gas or bullets" and "Tunisian people, revolt!" They demanded the dissolution of the provisional government.
During the following days demonstrations continued taking place in Tunis and spreading to other cities. On 8 May in Slimane, a small coastal town 45 kilometres from Tunis, a soldier shot and killed Mahmoud Toumi, a member of the Patriotic and Democratic Party of Labour (known as the PT) and activist in the local Committee to Defend the Revolution.
In a statement commemorating the fallen comrade, the PT pointed out that this 26-year-old unemployed university graduate and Internet enthusiast was typical of the tens of thousands of young Tunisian women and men who have been at the core of this movement.