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January 14, 2011 < Previous Entry | Next Entry >

Amidst Violence, Thousands in Tunisia Protest for Democratic Reforms, Demand Ben Ali’s Resignation

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In Tunisia, thousands of demonstrators have gathered in the center of the capital, Tunis, calling for President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to immediately step down.

For the past four weeks, Tunisia has been gripped by a wave of unprecedented protests over unemployment, high food prices and government repression. The protests erupted in mid-December in the western region of the country, but quickly spread and this week engulfed the relatively wealthy capital of Tunis, which is currently under military curfew. Human rights groups say more than 60 people have been killed in a crackdown by security forces.

On Thursday night, Ben Ali delivered an unprecedented televised address in which he announced major concessions, promising that he would not seek a fourth term in office in 2014. The Tunisian president also agreed to allow political freedom, refrain from censorship of sites such as YouTube, end police brutality, and cut the prices of food staples. Ben Ali is only Tunisia’s second president since independence from France in 1956.

We speak with Fares Mabrouk, a Tunisian activist in Paris who has been helping to disseminate videos of protests uploaded from mobile phones in Tunisia.

AMY GOODMAN: In Tunisia, thousands of demonstrators have gathered in the center of the capital, Tunis, calling for President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to immediately step down.

For the past four weeks, Tunisia has been gripped by a wave of unprecedented protests over unemployment, high food prices and government repression. The protests erupted in mid-December in the western region of the country, but quickly spread, this week engulfed the relatively wealthy capital of Tunis, which is currently under military curfew. Human rights groups say more than 60 people have been killed in a crackdown by security forces.

On Thursday night, Ben Ali delivered an unprecedented televised address in which he announced major concessions, promising he will not seek a fourth term in office in 2014. The Tunisian president also agreed to allow political freedom, refrain from censorship of sites such as YouTube, and end police brutality, and cut the prices of food staples. Ben Ali is only Tunisia’s second president since independence from France in 1956.

In Paris, hundreds of Tunisians rallied Thursday to support the protests in their home country.

PROTESTER: [translated] We want to start with the departure of Ben Ali and his regime and the installation of a democratic regime that is elected by the people and which represents the people and which defends its social and economic interests.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Paris, France, to speak with Fares Mabrouk, a Tunisian activist who has just moved to Paris, helping to disseminate videos and information about the protests uploaded from mobile phones in Tunisia.

Fares, welcome to Democracy Now! Explain what is happening in your country, in Tunisia.

FARES MABROUK: Yeah, what’s happening in Tunisia is really unique in the history of Tunisia, because what began by people criticizing the government for — I mean, what was related to the [inaudible] at the beginning became today a more general claim against this autocracy. And what is happening today is Tunisia is even — is not only about Tunisia. Think more about the Arab world and about the question, what relation can have our people with their leaders? And we are obliged today to, and we have the chance, actually, the unique opportunity, to reflect on the question of real democracy. Is democracy possible in the Arab world? And Tunisians — and what is really unique is that of all the slogans brought by people countrywide and in the capital, no one was talking about religion. They were all talking about dignity. So we have the chance here, in this small Arab country, and the Arab street — in Algeria, in Cairo, in Morocco — the Arab street is watching us, is watching Tunisia. And we have the chance to really send a message to the Arab world saying, yes, democracy is possible. We can be a democracy, and let’s do it. And this is why it’s really a defining moment in our history. But in the same time, there is a huge opportunity to really implement a real democracy and finish and stop with this type of dictators, dictatorships, in Tunisia, at least.

AMY GOODMAN: Fares, can you give us the history of your country, in terms of independence, how long Ben Ali has been there, and what you make of his televised address yesterday saying that he will not seek a fourth term? He’s been in office for more than two decades.

FARES MABROUK: Yeah, so Tunisia had its independence in 1956. And we had a very — we had two presidents since 1956: Habib Bourguiba, who ran the country until 1987, and for the last 23 years after the coup, Ben Ali, his former prime — the former prime minister of Bourguiba, took the power. In the beginning, he really — he promised democracy. He promised he will open the political sphere. He promised he will open the media. And after 23 years, we are in the same situation. I mean, we are in a very bad situation.

To give you an example, Tunisia — a number, Tunisia is among the 10 percent country, more closed country in the world, 10 percent more closed country in the world. YouTube is censored. The whole media are censored. And today, Tunisian people are just saying, "This is no more possible. This is not possible, and we want to be able to choose our leaders in the future."

And just to go back to your question, yesterday’s message of Ben Ali was, he was giving the same promise he did in 23 years ago. So yesterday he came to the population and said, "OK, I understood you." He opened YouTube. "And we will organize a free election. We will organize, and I will seek for another term in 2014." But the question is today, what message do we want to send to our future leaders? Do we want them to just run the country as Ben Ali did for 23 years and then just ask for pardon? I mean, this is not — I mean, the response today, as I’m talking, with a huge demonstration in the streets of Tunis, the response is there. And people are asking him to leave. There is a constitution, and we want the constitution to be applied.

AMY GOODMAN: Fares Mabrouk, what caused this latest round of protests that have led to the massive protests today? What sparked it?

FARES MABROUK: What’s happening since — I mean, it’s very interesting, because this revolution actually was really done by the people. And there is no political party, no associations, no leaders that can say that they were — I mean, they initiated this movement. So this is a movement given — I mean, done and organized spontaneously by the people. And as this movement, which is not organized until now — as this movement evolved and developed through the internet, with Facebook and Twitter playing the role to connect all these small groups, the revendication changed. And now people are revendicating, I mean, democracy. We just want to have a democracy in our country. And it’s very clear and quite simple.

AMY GOODMAN: Fares Mabrouk, can you talk about the young university graduate who killed himself after being held by — he was arrested by police. He wasn’t able to find a job. He only sold fruit and vegetables in the market. What happened? Who was he?

FARES MABROUK: Mohamed Bouazizi is a Tunisian who tried to — I mean, he graduated and then tried to find a job. He couldn’t find a job. And so, he tried to sell fruits in the street. And then the police came once and two times and three times and harassed. He was harassed by the police. So, later he went to the local government, the local representative of the government, and tried to claim. And he had the same response and being just harassed. So what he did, he killed himself.

And he became the symbol of this movement, saying that the government cannot — can no more be — I mean, cannot give this type of response to its population. We need the empathy, and we need the government to work for people. We don’t want no more this type of relation between the government and the people, and the government playing the role of harassing people and not listening to its people. So he really became the — he became the symbol of that. And today, today in the demonstration — it took place two hours ago — people were asked — were claim to have a street in Tunis with the name of Mohamed Bouazizi. I mean, this is why I talked about the relation between the people and its leaders. This relation must change in Tunisia and also must change in the future in the Arab world.

AMY GOODMAN: Fares, what about the police response? The estimates of the federation, the International Federation of Human Rights, are that something — more than 60 people have been killed.

FARES MABROUK: Yes, and we think — I mean, we think we will have more than that. Now, the police — the police weren’t organized. And the type of response of the police with new media in the country, the type of response we already had in the past. But this time was the time where people stand and say no. I mean, no more of that. So, this really shows the way Tunisia is run and the way Tunisia was run for the last 23 years.

AMY GOODMAN: At the time —

FARES MABROUK: And people — yeah?

AMY GOODMAN: At the time of this broadcast, Fares, police have fired tear gas at the protesters who have climbed atop the roof of the Interior Ministry. There are thousands there as we’re speaking.

FARES MABROUK: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I have tens of friends there, and I received very — I received messages from them saying, I mean, this is really unique. We are now — we are drawing our future. And this is why it’s very important. I mean, this moment, this is really a very important moment in the history of our country, but it’s also in the history of the Arab world, and probably the world, because the lesson from the Tunisian people is a lesson of, I mean, dignity. You know, I have a video of two days ago. Two days ago, from the balcony of downtown Tunisia, people were shooting from the window, "Dignity! Dignity!" at 2:00 in the morning.

AMY GOODMAN: They were shouting.

FARES MABROUK: Yeah, yeah, shouting from the window, "Dignity! Dignity!" And this is really great, because this is really — but we cannot miss this opportunity. We need to be there. And hopefully the U.S. could also help this movement. I think this could be a second wind of Cairo speech, because, I mean, we are talking about democracy in the Arab world here. And we are not talking about it for ten years from now; we’re talking from it now, today. And this is why we really — and it’s part of my job here, I mean, being to Paris, to try to advocate in other countries to bring the attention on Tunisia today. We are drawing our future and the future of the Arab world.

AMY GOODMAN: Fares Mabrouk, I wanted to get your response to the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who has wrapped up her four-nation visit to the Gulf in Doha, where she said, "It is hard to have the kind of economic climate that is needed without making some of the social reforms that are required." She said, "Put aside the critical issue of political freedoms, human rights and democracy that we have been discussing, focus on social conditions."

FARES MABROUK: Yes. I mean, this is a perfect example of — and this is what’s the statement. This is a perfect example of the people who thought that we can have development without opening the political sphere. And here is the perfect example because what we are having today in Tunisia is a state capture corruption. And people today are also claiming against that. The type of corruption we have in Tunisia is very dangerous, and it’s more than just — than simple corruption of people giving bribe, because we’re talking about state capture by the family, by the family of Ben Ali. And it’s clear that you will not be able to have development in the future without having this type of liberty we are advocating. And this is democracy. And I hope that the U.S. — because we were really disappointed by what we listened from the French government and the French ministers, and we hope that the government will take this opportunity to give a new wind to the Cairo speech that were really welcomed in the Arab world.

AMY GOODMAN: What has been the U.S. relationship with the — with Ben Ali?

FARES MABROUK: The relationship with — I mean, depending what we read. If we read the WikiLeaks, if we read the WikiLeaks cables, we — and I think the WikiLeaks cables played a role in this development, because they bring the proof of what all people know. And when you read the WikiLeaks cable, you can read the ambassador saying, "What is this country doing? And we cannot — I mean, this is very corrupted regime. This is impossible to — I mean, we cannot continue to support this regime." So, there is an official support to Ben Ali, but it’s interesting to see that also the U.S. was worrying also about this question of human rights, of corruption, and of democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us why what’s been happening in Tunisia is being called the Jasmine Revolution?

FARES MABROUK: Yes. The Jasmine Revolution because — I mean, because we are probably, probably go — we also call it the spring, Tunisian spring, democracy spring in Tunisia. We are going — probably going, but there is risks, and we really worry, and I worry. I mean, my family is there in Tunisia. My wife, my children are in Tunisia. And we really worry because the situation is also chaotic. So there is — but in the same time, there is this huge hope — huge hope — to create in this country the first real democracy in the Arab world. And this is what you call — this is why we call it the Jasmine Revolution, because the jasmine is — I mean, this is Tunisian — Tunisia is recognized for its jasmine. So, probably we are really going to create a unique and first — I mean, the first real democracy in the Arab world. And this would be great. And this is done by the people; not done — it’s not done by its elites. We just joined the movement; we didn’t initiate it. And this has really come from the people and belongs to the people. And this is a great message, a great lesson, to all who doubted on democracy in the Arab world, inside the Arab world and also outside the Arab world.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Fares Mabrouk, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Last question — we’re speaking to you today on Skype. You’re in Paris. Explain why you left, right at the beginning of these protests, to go to Paris and the significance of the mobile media that is getting word out. You mentioned how little mainstream media is able to get word out of the country.

FARES MABROUK: So, first of all, I am part of thousand, or hundred of thousand of Tunisian, who took the decision to open a bracket in their life; put their family, business or jobs in standby; and stand up for this country for a certain period and work on this democracy issue. And we will close this bracket and return to our life in two, three months or four months, when democracy will be — when we will have democracy in Tunisia. So when we decided — when I decided that, I mean, every one of us tried to see where he or she can be the most efficient. And so, I moved to Paris to be here to try to be a relay to all my friends, who are taking more risks than I do, but who are in Tunis now and shooting and taking videos of what is happening there. And I’m trying to advocate it with the media, advocate within the public here in France, and hopefully in the U.S., that what is — that there is an absolute necessity to support the Tunisian movement for democratization.

AMY GOODMAN: And the use of cell phones, how you’re getting this media, how you’re getting video out to the world?

FARES MABROUK: First of all, I mean, the power of this movement using the social media, the power of this movement is that they are not organized. So there is tens, or maybe hundreds, of initiatives like mine. We are not organized as a classic movement. So, what I do, what we do — so there is different initiatives. People will create a website and then — and then will upload video on this website and then communicate about this website. And then this website would be censored. But in the center, when this website would be censored, tens of other initiatives will be created, because there is no connection between the different initiatives that are taking place in Tunisia. And being in Paris will allow me, I mean, to also be a relay of these different independent — it’s independent — initiatives taken by the Tunisian bloggers and the Tunisian inter-hosts.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Fares Mabrouk, thank you very much for being with us. Of course, we’ll continue to follow these developments next week. Thank you very much.

FARES MABROUK: Thank you. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Fares Mabrouk, speaking to us from Paris, a part of a group of people there who are trying to support the people in the protests in Tunisia by getting word out in France and around the world. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. Spread the word.