Jan 28, 2011

Revolution in Tunisia

Tunisia swore in a new interim president yesterday while struggling to contain looting, deadly prison riots and chaos in the streets.

The unrest came after President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was swept from power on Friday following a month of street protests over corruption, a lack of jobs and clampdowns on civil liberties.

As many as 50 people were reported to have been killed in a prison fire in the Mediterranean coastal resort of Monastir. Yesterday, British holidaymakers, including many Scots, were flown back to the UK from the resort. In the wake of Ben Ali’s departure for exile in Saudi Arabia, the country’s leadership changes came rapidly. While initially his long-time ally Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi took up power, yesterday Constitutional Council President Fethi Abdennadher declared the president’s departure permanent and the speaker of parliament, Fouad Mebazza, was sworn in as interim president.

He in turn ordered the formation of a coalition government and the constitutional authorities said a presidential election should be held within 60 days. While the moves were aimed at reconciliation, it was not clear how far the 77-year-old Mebazaa, who has been part of Tunisia’s ruling class for decades, would go to invite the opposition into the government. Unclear too was just who would emerge as the top political leaders in a post-Ben Ali Tunisia.

For 23 years the autocratic leader has utterly dominated politics, placing his allies in power and sending opponents to jail or into exile. The latest riots started after an educated but jobless 26-year-old committed suicide in mid-December when police confiscated the fruit and vegetables he was selling without a permit. His desperate act hit a nerve, sparked copycat suicides, and focused generalised anger against the regime into a widespread revolt.

Yesterday, the mood on the streets of the capital, Tunis, and in other cities was at times ugly and violent. In Tunis, soldiers traded fire with unidentified attackers in front of the Interior Ministry, while looters emptied shops and torched the capital’s main railway station. Eye-witnesses said black smoke billowed over a giant supermarket as looters torched and emptied it.

There were also drive-by shootings. “It is certain the presidential police are behind all this. They still hope to regain power,” said Tunisian analyst Taoufik Ayachi.

Public television station TV7 broadcast phone calls from residents of working-class neighbourhoods on the capital’s outskirts, describing attacks against their homes by knife-wielding assailants.

“This isn’t good at all. I’m very afraid for the kids and myself,” said Lilia Ben Romdhan, a mother of three in outer Tunis. “If (he) had stayed in the country it would be better.”

Kamel Fdela, selling oranges and bananas in the neighbourhood, said he wanted democracy but was not sure that would happen. He also feared food shortages, with so many stores closed and others looted.

“God willing, a real man will take over,” he said. While Tunisian airspace did reopen yesterday, some flights were cancelled and others left after delays.

Thousands of tourists were still being evacuated from the Mediterranean nation known for its sandy beaches, desert landscapes and ancient ruins. Last night British Foreign Secretary William Hague appealed for a rapid return to law and order, adding that the Foreign and Commonwealth office was continuing to advise British people to avoid all but essential travel to Tunisia.

President Barack Obama said he applauded the courage and dignity of protesting Tunisians, and urged all parties to keep calm and avoid violence.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who refused permission for Ben Ali to enter France, called for free elections as soon as possible and said it had taken steps to block suspicious movements of Tunisian assets in France.

Elsewhere Saudi King Abdullah’s spokesman confirmed yesterday that ousted Ben Ali and some family members had landed in Saudi Arabia, saying the kingdom welcomed him with a wish for “peace and security to return to the people of Tunisia.” He did not give Ben Ali’s exact whereabouts, but a source inside the kingdom said he was in the small city of Abha, about 310 miles south of Jeddah.

Ben Ali’s fall and escape into exile are now being seen as an epoch-changing political earthquake by many in the capitals of Europe, from where Tunisia was lauded as the most European country of North Africa, with a large middle class, a free market economy, broad gender equality and welcoming Mediterranean beaches.

Despite being one of the most repressive governments in a region characterised by police states, United States leaders gave it high marks for its aggressive prosecution of terrorist suspects. But under sweeping anti-terrorism laws, there were thousands of arbitrary arrests and innumerable cases of torture.

Ben Ali’s departure is seen by many poltical analysts as having the potential to embolden Arab opposition movements and ordinary people to challenge entrenched governments across the Middle East.

“It’s a creeping realisation that more and more people are being marginalised and pauperised and that, increasingly, life is more difficult,” said Rami Khouri, director of an Arab affairs institute at the American University of Beirut. “You need little events that capture the spirit of the time. Tunisia best captures that in the Arab world.”

Hours after Ben Ali fled, a Lebanese broadcaster, in triumphant tones, ended her report on the first instance of an Arab leader being overthrown in popular protests by quoting a famous Tunisian poet. “And the people wanted life,” she said, “and the chains were broken.” The broadcaster, Abeer Madi al-Halabi, said the seismic events in Tunisia would serve as “a lesson for countries where presidents and kings have rusted on their thrones.”

Some regional observers point out that the near-silence of Arab leaders in countries like Algeria, Egypt and Sudan speaks volumes about what they think of Tunisia’s revolt.

In contrast many young people throughout the Arab world are reported to be relaying Tunisia’s developments to each other through Facebook, Twitter, and other online social networks.

One blogger in Bahrain, Mohammed al-Maskati, twittered: “It actually happened in my lifetime! An Arab nation woke up and said enough.”

Intelligence and diplomatic analysts say that inside Tunisia for now much depends on who can show they have the greater momentum behind them, the looters and violent gangs or the authorities. It would be naive, they point out, to expect that even with Ben Ali gone his inner circle will simply throw in the towel, being too entrenched, and with so much to lose.

Some have even suggested that Ben Ali loyalists are sowing chaos to try to seize back power.

Only the coming hours and days will determine whether such an assessment proves to be the case.

Tourists come home

‘There were fires in the street, shop fronts had been smashed, debris everywhere’

By Alison Campsie

It was a simple quest for winter sun that left scores of Scots trapped in their blacked-out hotels with the surrounding picture postcard landscape trashed by gunfights and street fires.

More than 230 holidaymakers touched down at Glasgow Airport last night at 7pm from the resort of Monastir after being brought home from Tunisia by their tour operators. Most had been told around 6am yesterday their holidays were coming to an early end as security deteriorated sharply.

Some holidaymakers spent almost four hours stuck on a plane on the tarmac at Monastir airport as holiday firms gathered as many of their customers as they could.

Peter Munro, 50, was in Tunisia celebrating his birthday with his wife Linda when the unrest broke out. “We won’t forget this in a hurry. We were there less than a week and have spent the last couple of days confined to our hotel. On the way to the airport we could see a petrol station destroyed and there were armed guards with bayonets. It’s not the kind of holiday you want.”

Mrs Munro, a nursery teacher, said: “I wouldn’t say it was scary because we knew we were getting home. I felt worse for the people who live there. Staff at the hotel were crying – they know that Tunisia is finished.

“Other guests in the hotel were angry. They had long holidays cut short but we are glad to be home. Our daughters have been phoning us, worried. I think it has been worse for them.”

Hugh Dorby, 54, and his wife Elizabeth, 51, of Kilmarnock, had already been in Tunisia too long after Mrs Dorby took seriously ill and was kept in hospital for a week. As the couple waited to leave this morning, a week behind schedule, Mr Dorby walked through the streets of a resort just south of Monastir.

He said: “There were fires in the street, shop fronts had been smashed, debris everywhere. Not the kind of things you want to see on holiday. In the town where we were staying, a 25-year-old man was shot dead. That tells you what it has been like out there.”

Anne McRitchie, from Wemyss in Fife, said she had been confined to her hotel for the past two days but that the impact of the riots became clearer on the drive to the airport when she saw burnt out cars and armed guards patrolling the road.

“I was glad to get out in the end. I haven’t slept for two days. The Tunisians I have spoken to have been in floods of tears. They are devastated at what has happened to their country.”

Margaret Cox, 67, and her husband William, 70, from Ibrox, Glasgow, were two weeks into their seven-week winter break when they were told to leave by their tour operator.

Mrs Cox said: “Our hotel was surrounded by a big rally and we were told this morning that we would have to leave. We’re miserable coming back, we have lost five weeks of our holiday.”

Margaret and James Brown of Robroyston, Glasgow, knew that something was wrong when they sat on a coach for six hours on a day trip to the Sahara, only to be told that the tour was cancelled.

Mr Brown said: “That was on Wednesday and things just got worse from there. That night we were confined to our hotel in Sousse. We never left our hotel after that and on Thursday you could hear gun fire through the night and could smell the smoke.

“Our whole hotel lost power last night, it was surrounded by fire engines and police. We ended up sitting in the lobby with candles that were handed out to guests.”

The Browns left their hotel in a convoy of three coaches but ended up sitting on a plane at the airport for more than four hours.

Mrs Brown said: “We are back safe in Glasgow and that is the main thing. I will be so pleased just to get home. We are just exhausted from it all.”

Seven flights in total brought holidaymakers with Thomson and First Choice back to the UK. The last of their 1400 customers were due home at East Midlands airport last night. Thomas Cook have repatriated 1800 tourists in total.