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Tunisia: `Revolution until victory!' Mass protests force prime minister to resign

By Andy Worthington

February 27, 2011 -- -- Six weeks after Tunisia’s long-serving dictator, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, was forced to flee the country after the popular uprising that has inspired similar movements throughout the Middle East, Mohamed Ghannouchi, who was the head of the transitional government that took over from Ben Ali, has responded to the largest protests since the dictator’s fall — a weekend of violent protests that left five people dead — by tendering his resignation.

Ghannouchi, who was the prime minister under Ben Ali for 10 years, had struggled to convince a significant number of the Tunisian people that he represented a break with the old regime — hence the protests at the weekend.

In an attempt to cling onto power, Ghannouchi had promised to bring forward the date of democratic elections from September to mid-July, which is a positive development, but as Al Jazeera reported on February 25, as a crowd numbering at least 100,000 protesters gathered in the Kasbah government quarter of Tunis, “Demonstrators chanted ‘Ghannouchi leave’ and ‘Shame on this government’ as army helicopters circled above the crowd.”

Reporting from the capital, Al Jazeera’s James Bays said, “This is the largest protest in Tunisia since the fall of Ben Ali. And it shows you that even though the world’s attention is now on Libya, in some of those countries that have already had a revolution, things are far from over.”

Al Jazeera also reported that protesters shouted “Revolution until victory” and “We will root out repression in our land”. Tibini Mohamed, a 25-year-old student, told AFP, “We are here today to topple the government.” and other protesters told Al Jazeera, “The dictator has gone but the dictatorship is still here” and “We are suffering because Ghannouchi is the same as Ben Ali”.

Announcing his departure on Tunisian national TV on February 27, Mohamed Ghannounchi said, “My resignation will provide a better atmosphere for the new era. My resignation is in the service of the country.” Within hours, Tunisia’s interim president Fouad Mebazaa named former government minister Beji Caid-Essebsi as the new prime minister, although it is by no means clear that Caid-Essebsi will fare any better.

The transitional government has faced regular protests since Ben Ali’s fall, with opponents particularly focused on demands that remnants of the old government be expelled — a limited hope, given Ghannouchi’s previous role in Ben Ali’s reviled regime, and not one that has substantially improved with the appointment of Beji Caid-Essebsi.

It remains to be seen whether the transitional government can manage to retain order — and the confidence of the people — for the next four and half months. Protesters are restless for change and, as the UK Guardian reported, they “want the interim government disbanded along with the current parliament. They also seek the suspension of the constitution and the formation of an elected assembly that can write another, organise elections and oversee the transition to democracy.”

To be fair to the remnants of Ben Ali’s regime, however, they have taken important steps towards meaningful change in the last six weeks. Immediately after the dictator’s departure, the transitional cabinet “decided to recognise all banned political parties and agreed on a general amnesty for all political prisoners”, as Al Jazeera reported at the time.

As a result, Rachid Ghannouchi, the exiled head of trhe Islamist party Ennahdha (aka al-Nahda), returned from Paris, even before the amnesty, which was issued February 19, came into effect. Former members of Ennahdha, including former Guantánamo prisoner Abdallah Hajji (also identified as Abdullah bin Amor) were also released from prison, as I explained in my article, Guantánamo: A Tale of Two Tunisians. Announcing the amnesty, the state media declared that it applied to “all those who were imprisoned or prosecuted for crimes as a result of their political or trade union activities” and added, “The government is hoping that this law will finally end an era of repression and provide the right conditions for the election.”

No one knows quite how many political prisoners there were under Ben Ali. A week after his fall, Al Jazeera reported that the transitional government said that 1800 political prisoners had already been freed, although Al Jazeera’s Nazanine Moshiri, reporting from Tunis, pointed out that it “was difficult to know how many detainees there had been in the first place”. She added, “We’ve heard earlier in the day that some Islamist ones, belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, may not have been freed yet, being kept under Tunisian anti-terror laws.”

On January 20, after the first releases, Amnesty International celebrated the release of two Amnesty International prisoners of conscience, journalist Fahem Boukadous and activist Hassan Ben Abdallah, seized after protests in the Gafsa region in 2008, convicted after unfair trials and given four-year prison sentences, but noted that “not all political prisoners were released as initially announced” and that Ali Hirabi, Ali Ben Farhat and Hachemi Ben Taleb, linked to Ennahdha, were “still to be released despite promises”.

Reuters stated that the government has, to date, “released some 3000 people imprisoned by the Ben Ali regime, though most are believed to have been petty criminals serving over-long sentences, as opposed to being political prisoners”, adding that human rights groups estimated that Tunisia had “about 1000 political prisoners following Ben Ali’s 23 years in power”. According to a lawyer who spoke to AFP, “between 300 and 500″ political prisoners remained in jail.

More precise figures were published on February 6 by Human Rights Watch, whose representatives had been allowed to visit Tunisia’s prisons for the first time in 20 years. Human Rights Watch reported:

The Justice Ministry said that at the time the transitional government took office, slightly more than 500 prisoners were being held for politically motivated offenses. The number was close to the estimate given by the International Association for Solidarity with Political Prisoners, an independent Tunisian human rights organization.

About 150 remain incarcerated, 87 serving sentences under the anti-terrorism law and another 56 awaiting trial, according to a Justice Ministry official. A few additional prisoners are serving politically motivated sentences not under the anti-terrorism law but under the ordinary penal code or military law.

During the events surrounding the president’s ouster, 11,029 prisoners escaped, of whom 2,425 had voluntarily surrendered as of February 3, a Justice Ministry official said. Since then, the judiciary has used its prerogative under the law to release conditionally 3,240 criminal prisoners, some of them first-time offenders who had served half their sentences and others who are recidivists and who were eligible for release after having served two-thirds of their sentences.

A Justice Ministry official said that 128 prisoners convicted under Tunisia’s 2003 anti-terrorism law were among those who escaped and that they have been urged to return to custody. Another 177 serving sentences under the anti-terrorism law were among those released conditionally and another 100 facing trial under that law were freed provisionally.

Human Rights Watch also noted that, on February 1, just two of the three Ennahdha prisoners mentioned by Amnesty International — Ali Farhat and Ali Abdallah Saleh Harrabi (Harabi), both in their early 50s — remained in prison, and that both were serving sentences of about six months.

As prisoners are released, some of them are telling their stories, and the following article, which involves prisoners claiming that they were waterboarded, and, on occasion, interrogated by US agents, was published by AFP on February 26.

[This article first appeared on Andy Worthington's website and is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission.]

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