Post from October, 2011

Starting a riot in Sidi Bouzid

Saturday, 29. October 2011 18:44

Tunisia’s election is finally over and we have the first post-uprising victory of a Brotherhood calque.  But the events in Sidi Bouzid certainly marred the process. I turned up there mid-Friday afternoon when the  town courthouse and National Guard building were still burning furiously. Teenagers were talking around with burning plastic bags to spread the fires further. Documents were lying all over the road, with some desks and chairs. Some two dozen cars were burned out, while their tyres had been removed. The destruction inside the buildings was total. Shelves of archive inside the justice building were smouldering away, electricity wires dangled around dangerously, a few soldiers wandered in and out in an attempt, I suppose, to declare the state’s desire for the vandalism and looting to end. Townspeople came in to gawp at the ruin of the justice building and they appeared as bemused by the scene as the few journalists who had driven for hours along the unkempt country roads. [...]

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Cradle of Tunisia revolt rocked by new protests

Friday, 28. October 2011 19:18

By Andrew Hammond

SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia | Fri Oct 28, 2011 9:36pm BST

(Reuters) – Smoke billowed from a wrecked police station in Tunisia’s Sidi Bouzid Friday after protesters angry that their election candidates were disqualified rampaged through the town that was the cradle of the “Arab Spring” revolt.

The only sign of any security presence were a few soldiers at the top of the street leading into the town centre, but they were making no effort to restore order, leaving several hundred protesters in control.

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The rioting appeared to stem from widespread sentiment in Tunisia’s provinces that while the revolution in January brought democracy, it has so far failed to deliver the jobs and better housing many people had hoped for.

Flames and a thick plume of smoke were coming out of the office of the municipal police after rioters earlier set fire to it, and the streets were littered with burning rubbish.

Sidi Bouzid was the town where, 11 months ago, a young vegetable seller called Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself in an act of protest at poverty and official repression.

His suicide unleashed protests which swelled and forced autocratic president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee.

This in turn inspired uprisings in Egypt and Libya that forced out entrenched leaders, and protests which have convulsed Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.

MARGINALISATION

At the root of Sidi Bouzid’s protests during Tunisia’s revolution was the fact that residents feel marginalised and ignored by the ruling elite, 280 km to the northwest in the more prosperous capital.

Even with a new administration now in power in Tunis, those same issues appeared to have sparked the latest violence.

Officials with the independent commission overseeing an election for a new assembly ruled that candidates in several districts with the Popular List party would be disqualified because of alleged campaign violations.

The party, headed by London-based businessman Hachmi Hamdi, had a strong following in Sidi Bouzid. It ran a populist campaign that was heavily promoted by a television station which Hamdi owns.

Thursday night, after the disqualification was announced, rioters set fire to the mayor’s office and other buildings.

The violence resumed Friday morning, when soldiers fired in the air to stop a crowd attacking the office of the regional governor, witnesses told Reuters. The Interior Ministry imposed a night-time curfew that comes into force from Friday evening.

Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda party that won the election, appealed for calm in Sidi Bouzid.

“Ennahda calls on Tunisians to pull together, for dialogue and the rejection of violence … Sidi Bouzid will be given priority in our program of development,” he said.

He also said he suspected that people loyal to ousted President Ben Ali’s now-banned RCD party were behind the clashes.

Many Tunisians suspect Ben Ali loyalists of trying to sabotage their revolution, and Hamdi said publicly before Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia that he backed him.

Even with some of its candidates disqualified, the Popular List came fourth in the election, beating more established parties and surprising observers.

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Cradle of Tunisia revolt still angry at rulers

Friday, 28. October 2011 19:13

By Andrew Hammond

SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia | Fri Oct 28, 2011 1:50pm EDT

(Reuters) – This provincial Tunisian town became the cradle of the “Arab Spring” revolts nearly a year ago because residents were fed up with being talked down to by elites in the distant capital.

On Friday the town erupted into violence once again because, local people said, despite a revolution that swept away the country’s rulers and installed a new Islamist leadership, nothing had really changed.

Protesters angry that election candidates they backed had been disqualified rampaged through Sidi Bouzid, setting fire to a court-house, a police headquarters, the mayor’s office and the offices of a rival party.

In the worst clashes of the first post-”Arab Spring” election, one that otherwise passed off peacefully, troops fired into the air to try to disperse a crowd attacking the office of the regional governor.

“Where did my vote go?” said a local man called Ahmed who, like many in the town, did not want to give his full name in case he was prosecuted over the violence.

“It was an open election and I can vote for who I like. They took away our rights,” he said.

It was in Sidi Bouzid 11 months ago that Mohamed Bouazizi, a vegetable seller, set fire to himself in an act of protest that swelled into a national revolt.

After forcing out president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s revolution inspired uprisings which ousted entrenched leaders in Egypt and Libya.

“INSULT”

The spark for the latest violence in Sidi Bouzid was that the independent commission overseeing an election for a new assembly invalidated seats won by several candidates with the Popular List, a party headed by London-based businessman Hachmi Hamdi.

That was only the first insult, in the eyes of people in this town, 280 km (170 miles) south of the capital.

Senior officials in the Islamist Ennahda party, which won the election, said they would not work with Hamdi’s party in the assembly and went on television to describe the people of Sidi Bouzid as poor and marginalized.

When the disqualification of several Popular List candidates was announced by the election commission, journalists at a news conference broadcast live stood up and applauded.

To some local residents, it felt like a slap in the face from the capital.

“When the journalists started clapping and ululating, that’s when it started,” said another man, who gave his name as Mohammed.

Officials from Ennahda “insulted us,” said a resident called Lamine. “This is the reaction.”

He also touched on another grievance: that while the revolution in January brought democracy, it has so far failed to deliver the jobs and better housing many people in Tunisia’s provinces had hoped for.

“Tunisia’s revolution started in Sidi Bouzid,” he said. “What we demand is an end to regionalism. We are the sons of Sidi Bouzid and we suffer massive unemployment,” said Lamine.

“To these political parties I say: we are proud of Hachmi Hamdi. He has votes and he has supporters.”

By Friday afternoon, the violence had subsided, leaving behind wrecked and gutted buildings.

Flames and choking smoke were coming out of the office of the municipal police after rioters earlier set fire to it, and the streets were littered with burning rubbish.

The town’s court house and municipal government office were gutted. Charred chairs and tables were strewn around, papers were scattered everywhere and electricity cables hung from the ceiling.

A Reuters reporter saw two dozen burned-out cars in the streets. There was no sign of any police. They appeared to have pulled out, leaving the military to try to keep order.

Four soldiers had shown up to guard the burned-out hulk of the courthouse. Asked why they were not there to stop it being torched, one of the soldiers said he did not know and had only arrived on Friday morning.

One man touring the wreckage was angry at the destruction. He echoed the view of Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi that the violence was orchestrated by Ben Ali loyalists still trying to sabotage the revolution.

“The people behind this are the former regime,” he said, and then pointed angrily at the soldiers. “Look at them, they are just standing, watching us.”

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Al-Nahda likely to back an open economy

Thursday, 27. October 2011 1:10

TUNIS, Oct 26 (Reuters) – Tunisian Islamists who won a historic election victory this week are expected to promote business-friendly economic policies but Europe’s economic woes could favour Gulf investors in the short term, analysts say. [...]

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Ghanouchi is at liberal end of Islamist spectrum

Tuesday, 25. October 2011 0:18

TUNIS (Reuters) – Tunisian Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi is seen by many secularists as a dangerous radical, but for some conservative clerics who see themselves as the benchmark of orthodox Islam – he is so liberal that they call him an unbeliever.

Ghannouchi’s Ennahda party won Tunisia’s first free elections, 10 months after an uprising brought down ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who had banned the group and imprisoned Ghannouchi before he took up home as an exile in London. [...]

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Tunisian Islamists to do well in first “Arab Spring” vote

Saturday, 22. October 2011 3:42

By Andrew Hammond and Tarek Amara

TUNIS | Sat Oct 22, 2011 7:46pm EDT

(Reuters) – Islamists are expected to do well in Tunisia’s first democratic election Sunday, 10 months after the ouster of autocratic leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in a popular uprising that set off protest movements around the Arab world.

The Ennahda party will almost certainly win a share of power after the vote, which will set a democratic standard for other Arab countries where uprisings have triggered political change or governments have tried to rush reforms to stave off unrest. [...]

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Tunisia rivals stake positions in election rallies

Friday, 21. October 2011 3:53

By Andrew Hammond and Tarek Amara

TUNIS | Fri Oct 21, 2011 7:54pm EDT

(Reuters) – The main contenders in Tunisia’s first free election after the fall of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali held final campaign rallies on Friday, with both Islamists and their secular opponents claiming they would protect women and represent modernity. [...]

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‘Springtime in Riyadh’: Wagging the dog over Iran

Tuesday, 18. October 2011 20:25

Although Saudi Arabia has been manoeuvring to stymie the “Arab Spring” wherever it can, with the drama of an apparent Iranian conspiracy to murder Adel al-Jubair one might say, taking a bad metaphor further, its Springtime in Riyadh. Quite a few bottles of champagne were possibly pulled out in royal palaces and the villas of commoner henchmen across the capital. For the plot to Get Jubair in Washington has taken the United States one step closer to a military conflagration with Tehran: it’s still neither imminent nor on the horizon at any vaguely definable point in the short or medium term. But 1. Washington is one significant step further down that road and 2., and what I want to point out here, getting the US administration to that stage has been a Saudi foreign policy goal of the King Abdullah – “reformer”, “king of hearts”, etc. - era. [...]

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Analysis: Yemenis ask “Where’s the catch?” in familiar Saleh vow

Saturday, 8. October 2011 3:45

By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI | Sat Oct 8, 2011 2:22pm EDT

(Reuters) – Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s declaration in a speech on Saturday that he would leave power “in the coming days” is yet another act of brinkmanship from a leader who has spent much of the “Arab Spring” claiming he is about to step down.

Saleh’s words were taken almost universally as a ruse by Yemenis who have seen the famed wily operator survive through thick and thin since he took power in 1978. [...]

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Analysis – Bahrain risks more unrest, Shi’ite demands unmet

Wednesday, 5. October 2011 2:58

By Andrew Hammond

MANAMA | Wed Oct 5, 2011 7:07pm BST

(Reuters) – Bahrain’s Sunni rulers hope their reform promises and tough punishments will deter more pro-democracy protests, but majority Shi’ites are still seething, seeing scant progress on their demands for change in the deeply polarised Gulf island.

In a sign of Shi’ite radicalisation, activists in the February 14 Youth Coalition have called for civil disobedience. [...]

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