x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Agitators 'derailing elections' in Tunisia, PM claims

Prime Minister insists poll will go ahead in TV address to nation after teenage boy is killed in rural town where revolution began.

TUNIS // Tunisia's interim prime minister yesterday accused agitators of using violence to try to derail elections that many Tunisians consider vital to the country's transition to democracy.

"There is an orchestrated plan to upset the stability of the country," Béji Caid Essebsi said in a televised address. "Elections will be held as scheduled on October 23 despite everything."

Mr Essebsi went on air hours after news broke that a 14-year-old boy had been killed late on Sunday as security forces clashed with protesters in Sidi Bouzid - the rural town where Tunisia's revolution began seven months ago when an impoverished vegetable seller set fire to himself outside the regional governor's office after city officials confiscated his goods.

A defence ministry official, Colonel Marouan Bouguerra, said the boy was killed by a bullet that ricocheted when soldiers fired into the air to disperse protesters.

Tunisia has made strides towards democracy since the former president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was deposed in January. Political parties have sprouted by the dozens, free speech has expanded, and the country is abuzz with debate. In October Tunisians are to vote for a national assembly to draft a new constitution.

However, protests and vandalism in several cities over the weekend have stirred fears among some Tunisians of counter-revolutionary forces seeking to destabilise the country.

"There are many parties resorting to double talk and we know who they are," Mr Essebsi said.

Protesters have often levelled the same charge against Mr Essebsi and the interim government, who they say have failed to move quickly enough toward establishing a new political order.

While Mr Essebsi argued in favour of holding elections next week as initially planned, the government last month postponed them to October 23 after weeks of tense debate among political actors.

Meanwhile the government's progress on dismantling Mr Ben Ali's regime has been matched by a slowness to hold it to account, Hamadi Redissi, a politics professor at the University of Tunis, wrote in The New York Times on Friday.

"The key to establishing a new democracy will be how the interim government deals with members of the old regime," Mr Redissi wrote. "Unfortunately, it has been reluctant to bring them to justice immediately, opting instead to leave this pivotal responsibility to the government that will take power after elections in October."

On Friday hundreds of protesters marked six months since Mr Ben Ali's fall by gathering outside Mr Essebsi's office in Tunis, the capital, to demand that those they deem responsible for deaths during the revolution or abuses afterward face justice.

"Our demands are simple," said Ziad, a young teacher from Kelibia. "The sacking of the interior and justice ministers, sanctions against the masterminds of killings and redress for the victims."

Riot police fired tear gas to disperse protesters who had regrouped in an adjacent mosque and attacked journalists covering the demonstration, the state news agency reported. The interior ministry said protesters damaged the mosque and threw objects at police, injuring 18 of them.

Friday's violence appears to have sparked a chain reaction of riots and demonstrations over the weekend.

On Saturday police used batons to beat protesters heading for Mr Essebsi's office, the state news agency said. About 200 protesters in Intilaka, a working-class Tunis suburb, later clashed with police and set fire to a police station.

Among the protesters were bearded young men chanting "Allahu Akbar" and "You attacked Islam", a possible reference to the clash on Friday at the Tunis mosque.

Meanwhile in the town of Menzel Bourguiba, about 70km north of Tunis, demonstrators set fire to a police station late on Saturday before security forces dispersed them with warning shots, the state news agency said.

On Sunday afternoon about 200 protesters staged a sit-in outside the headquarters of the General Union of Tunisian Workers in Tunis, demanding that protesters arrested on Friday be freed, accoring to the state news agency. Police were deployed in force but did not intervene.

In Sidi Bouzid, groups of young men stormed through the town on Sunday evening, burning tyres in the street and hurling Molotov cocktails at security forces, the state news agency said. Motorcycles were reported to have been stolen from the municipal depot and cars at the state agriculture office ransacked.

"To me, it's unclear what exactly the protesters here want," said Rachid, a leading businessman in Sidi Bouzid. "Some seem politicised, but others just want to steal things and cause trouble."

Long neglected by Mr Ben Ali's regime along with other rural areas, Sidi Bouzid still suffers from high unemployment and increasing drug use among young people, Rachid said.

"Of course, most people here want answers to their problems, but they're not going to the street about it," said Rachid. "These protesters are a minority."

Yesterday morning several dozen protesters marched through Sidi Bouzid for several hours, Rachid said, finally stopping outside the main courthouse, where they set fire to a car.


* Additional reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse