Tunisia's young protesters reject 'empty words'

Young men near the capital Tunis, Tunisia (13 Jan 2011)
Image caption Tunisia has produced a generation of well-educated youth who cannot find work

Despite a curfew being imposed in the Tunisian capital during the hours of darkness, young men defied threats not to leave their homes and took their anger onto the streets of the southern suburbs of Tunis.

Police who had used tear gas during the day to try to control mobs of angry people fired live rounds. According to reports from eye-witnesses three people in Tunis were killed.

There are unconfirmed reports of deaths at other demonstrations across Tunisia during the past 24 hours.

In the centre of Tunis, armed police and soldiers are evident on many street junctions. Outside the imposing French embassy, the scene of a demonstration on Wednesday, the army has parked two military vehicles and stationed several soldiers.

Tunis is a tourist city and although it is winter and not the height of the holiday season, tour groups looked bemused as they were ushered past security personnel.

The Tunisian government has been shocked by the unfolding events and its inability to control them. And the robust response of the military and the police to the protests has not dissuaded people from demonstrating.

President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the Tunisian head of state, has sacked the interior minister, promised to release imprisoned protesters and ordered an investigation into claims of high-level corruption, but people I have spoken to in Tunis have described these as empty words.

He has also promised to create 300,000 jobs in Tunisia. One protester said: "Why now? He could have done all this months ago. He doesn't care about us."

On Thursday, the president called an emergency meeting of government ministers and senior officials to examine if there are other ways of defusing the angry mood, but his options are few.

Incendiary corruption

The wave of trouble began in December when a young man set himself on fire as a desperate response to the police preventing him from running a stall selling fruit and vegetables.

This was the spark which ignited a long-running sense of alienation, particularly among the young. It was a spark applied to a very potent and volatile set of conditions.

Image caption The scale and strength of the protests have taken the Tunisian government by surprise

Tunisia has a developed education system, with compulsory free education for all up to the age of 16.

This has pushed thousands of bright, well-educated young people onto a job market which cannot accommodate them.

The economy is incapable of providing enough work.

Prices of basic foodstuffs have soared. At a fish market I visited in the capital, there were few shoppers and traders told me that ordinary people on low incomes cannot afford the prices.

"They have gone up two or three times in the past few months," I was told.

The incendiary ingredient has been corruption.

President Ben Ali and his immediate family and close followers are accused of grabbing all the political and economic power.

I spoke to a group of young men standing on a street corner in the poor suburb of Ettadamen in Tunis.

'Grabbing power'

"We have no work," they said, adding that "the government doesn't care about us at all".

"All they are interested in is grabbing all the power and all the money. Of course we are protesting - wouldn't you?"

Those protests, which appear to be growing in intensity every day, show no signs of stopping.

Sellami Nejib, a senior figure involved in secondary education in Tunis, said the government does not understand how to behave in a democratic way.

"The protesters have tried to express their views on the street, to complain about the democratic system. And the response of the police has been to kill them - to fire bullets into the heads and chests.

"That's no way for a responsible government to respond."

Trades unions have called a rolling programme of strikes across Tunisia. On Friday, workers will refuse to work as part of their protest.

Many Tunisians have told me: "We are not going to stop. We are not going to let this opportunity go."

It has been quite alarming to sense the change of atmosphere in Tunis in the past two days. There is a strong sense of fear now about what the immediate future holds.

More on this story