Friday, January 14, 2011
By Tarek Amara
TUNIS: Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, trying to defuse the worst unrest of his rule, said Thursday he would not run again when his term expires in 2014.
Ben Ali also ordered his security forces to stop using firearms against protesters and said prices for sugar, milk and bread would be reduced.
He addressed the nation as the violence in the North African country brought more bloodshed and spread to the capital’s center.
Two young men were shot dead in clashes with police in Sliman, about 40 kilometers south of Tunis, witnesses told Reuters. At least five people suffered gunshot wounds in clashes with police in the center of Tunis.
The protesters say they are angry about unemployment, corruption and what they say is government repression.
“I said in 1987 no presidencies for life. I repeat now no presidencies for life. I refuse to touch the Constitution, I will not change the age in the Constitution,” Ben Ali said.
The Tunisian Constitution states no one over 75 years of age can run for the presidency and Ben Ali is 74. It had been widely expected he would have the document amended to allow him to run for a new term.
In an emotional speech delivered, in a first for the Tunisian president, in local dialect instead of classical Arabic, he said he had been tricked by some of his officials.
“I have been deceived, they deceived me. I am not the sun which shines over everything.”
“I understand the Tunisians, I understand their demands. I am sad about what is happening now after 50 years of service to the country, military service, all the different posts, 23 years of the presidency.”
“I won’t accept that another drop of blood of a Tunisian be spilled,” he said.
Ben Ali also promised to end Internet censorship and to open up the political playing field.
The moves appeared to be welcomed. After the speech, people in the streets of one Tunis district sang the national anthem, a Reuters reporter said. Cars honked their horns in celebration.
Thursday had started with all shops in Tunis city center closed and their shutters down. Armed soldiers, brought in to reinforce the police, stood guard outside government buildings behind banks of razor wire.
In the Lafayette district, the main shopping area, gunshots rang out two civilians fell to the ground injured while three others ran away with bloody leg wounds.
“There was a protest and police used tear gas and gunfire to disperse the crowds,” said a witness in a nearby street.
France implicitly criticized the government’s handling of the protests.
“We insist that all parties show restraint and choose the path of dialogue … we cannot continue with this disproportionate use of violence,” Prime Minister Francois Fillon said on an official visit to London.
The latest official count for the number of civilians killed in the unrest is 23. But the United Nations said rights groups put the toll at almost 40.