Tunisia gripped by unrest
Fewer than four months after former president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali was toppled in the so-called "Jasmine Revolution", Tunisia is once again under curfew following days of unrest, reports Mourad Teyeb from Tunis
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Tunisian police used tear gas on Sunday to break up a fourth day of anti-government protests by scores of youths in the centre of Tunis
Tunisia's caretaker government ordered the introduction of a curfew in the capital, Tunis, last Saturday following three days of unrest in which hundreds of people took to the streets to demonstrate against the interim government and to demand political change.
The protests began last week after a former minister warned of a potential coup d'état by Bin Ali supporters on Facebook.
Farhat Rajhi, a former interior minister in the interim government, warned that Bin Ali loyalists "might seize power in a coup if the Islamists win the July elections."
In an interview posted on Facebook, Rajhi said that some of the former ruling elite "still dominated political life and were not ready to cede power."
"If the results of the forthcoming elections go against their interests, there will be a military coup," he said.
In a possible reference to Moncef Letayef, the still-influential cousin of Bin Ali, Rajhi said that supporters of the former president still controlled parts of the country and would not be prepared to cede power should they lose the elections.
In the interview, posted by two reporters on Facebook last Wednesday, Rajhi said that some members of the former ruling elite were preparing a military coup should the Islamist Ennahdha Party win the 24 July elections.
"Since independence, political life has been dominated by people from the Sahel," such as former president Bin Ali, Rajhi pointed out. "Despite Bin Ali's ouster, these people are not ready to cede power."
In the interview, Rajhi said that Tunisian Prime Minister Beji Caïd Essebsi had discussed the military coup during a visit to Algeria in mid-March. "The nomination of General Rachid Ammar as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff is only in preparation for the coup," he said.
In response, demonstrators immediately took to Bourguiba Avenue in central Tunis calling for the interim government to step down and the revolution to be protected.
On Monday, the government dismissed Rajhi from his position as head of a human rights body as a result of the comments.
Popular and official reaction to Rajhi's statements has flooded the Tunisian media since last Thursday.
While attacking Rajhi for his statements, Essebsi said on Sunday that the July elections would be held "on the planned date". Essebsi called Rajhi "a liar" and said "he deserves to be prosecuted for warnings of a military coup."
"Rajhi is a liar, and his statements are dangerous and irresponsible. He deserves to be prosecuted," the prime minister said in an interview with national television on Sunday.
Rajhi's statements were "premeditated" and were meant to create conflict and eventually lead to a postponement of the elections, he said. Essebsi also called for "an end to the continuing unrest threatening the country's economy."
Debates have broken out in Tunisia over whether comments such as those made by Rajhi can be allowed under the principle of the freedom of expression, or whether they should be banned as harming the stability of the country.
According to Iadh Bin Ashour, head of the Democratic Transition Commission responsible for the country's transition to democracy, democracy in Tunisia "is failing to keep pace with the changes sought by the population."
Bin Ashour told local radio on Sunday that he believed that things "were not likely to calm down soon, because people are demanding that social and political changes come faster than democratic processes allow."
Ali Larayedh, an Ennahdha Party spokesman, warned of "the dangers of dissent," but agreed with Rajhi that "a shadow government" existed in the country.
However, Larayedh called upon Tunisians "not to resort to violence to resolve their differences."
In Tunis, reactions varied from support for Rajhi, once nicknamed "Mister Clean" for his stand against corruption, to warnings against dissent "based on regionalism and political selfishness."
Some protesters, mistrustful of the interim government and fearful that the police will rely on violence to put an end to the demonstrations, did not exclude a plot to derail the country's political reforms.
"The people want a new revolution," the protesters chanted.
In the meantime, activists have expressed concern over what may be "a return to government repression and censorship."
On Friday, plainclothes police assaulted 15 local and international journalists and photographers covering anti-government demonstrations in Tunis.
The National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT) condemned the attack, saying in a statement that "scores of plainclothes police brutally beat the journalists, in spite of knowing that they were journalists, and destroyed their cameras."
On Saturday, the Interior Ministry apologised to the journalists and vowed to launch an internal investigation into the incident. It said it had "identified the security officers responsible for attacking the journalists."
Protesters also say that they are worried about "a return to the old days" after the Tunisian Internet Agency blocked the Facebook page of activist Jalel Brik as a result of a new law passed by the interim government.
Tunisians trying to access Brik's Facebook profile came to a message saying "the Web page has been blocked in accordance with an order from the examining magistrate at the request of the Tunis Military Tribunal."
Journalist and activist Sihem Ben Sedrine, whose radio station Kalima is still denied recognition, warned against what she called "a return to the same censorship tools used by the Bin Ali regime."