Thousands of angry demonstrators marched through Tunisia’s capital on Friday to demand the resignation of the country’s autocratic leader, and hundreds of foreign tourists were evacuated amid fears of more unrest. Protesters chanted slogans against President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, including “Ben Ali, out!” and “Ben Ali, assassin!” One poster read “We won’t forget,” a reference to the rioters killed, many by police bullets.
Pent-up anger at unemployment and at a leadership many see as controlling and corrupt has exploded into protests and clashes with police over the past few weeks. The official death toll in the riots is 23, but opposition figures say dozens more have been killed.
US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks have described the corruption in Tunisia, and social networks like Facebook have helped spread the comments. Many ordinary Tunisians who have complained of corruption for years felt vindicated to see the US cables.
The march was organized by Tunisia’s only legal trade union, which also went ahead with a symbolic two-hour strike.
The demonstrations started in mid-December in the provinces but this week reached Tunis, the capital of this North African tourist haven on the Mediterranean.
In Friday’s protest, crowds sang the national anthem, fists in the air.
“We want to end this dictatorship,” said Wadia Amar, a university chemistry professor. “The Ben Ali clan should be brought to justice. They’ve taken everything.”
Facing the worst unrest in his 23 years in power, an unusually contrite Ben Ali went on television Thursday, making sweeping pledges for political and media freedom. He also promised to leave the presidency when his term ends in 2014, and ordered prices on sugar, milk and bread slashed.