24th Sep 2023

Mediterranean EU states block stronger action on Tunisia

  • Tunisian beach: the once popular tourist destination has seen 66 killings in what is being called the 'WikiLeaks Revolution' (Photo: waldopepper)

As democracy protests continued to grip cities across Tunisia on Friday (14 January) and human rights groups denounced the massacre of over 60 demonstrators, the European Union welcomed an announcement by the country's president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, that he would not seek re-election in 2014.

"We believe this creates some opportunity for a smooth transition," EU foreign affairs spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic told reporters after Mr Ben Ali, who has ruled the country since 1987, announced the night before he would reform the way the country is run.

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Ms Kocijancic also backed the announcement that the government would no longer use live rounds against protesters. Authorities have killed 66 individuals in recent weeks, according to the France-based International Human Rights Federation, which has described the government's crackdown as an "ongoing massacre."

By the end of the day on Friday, the president had sacked the government and called early elections in six months' time.

On Monday, Ms Ashton and Stefan Fuele, the enlargement and neighbourhood policy commissioner, responsible for relations with north African governments, said that the bloc's negotiations to upgrade relations with Tunis to "advanced status" would continue despite the brutality, but that they would involve greater commitment to "human rights and fundamental freedoms."

"We are concerned about the events that have been taking place in Tunisia in recent days," the pair said in a statement. "In particular, we deplore the violence and the death of civilians."

Left-wing, liberal and Green MEPs however have expressed their dismay at a "delayed" and "weak" response to the killings by foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton.

Emelie Doromzee, of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network, told EUobserver that the EU should suspend its talks with the government and more strongly condemn the regime's actions: "Until now, the language has been so far from what one would expect and sees elsewhere. The EU has put out a very weak statement. It's past the stage of written statements. It's almost a month now that these protests have been going on. We need concrete actions from the EU."

"We can't forget that there are some member states that are very close to the Tunisian regime."

Both Euromed and other groups name member states France, Spain, Italy and "increasingly Malta" as the culprits within the EU Council, who depend on Tunisia and other north African autocracies in Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Egypt for, in Ms Doromzee's words, "prevention of immigration - this is number one, trade liberalisation, and stability and prevention of Islamic radicalism - even if stability doesn't mean freedom."

She says that police have been taking details of protesters in preparation for what she fears will be massive arrests in the coming weeks and that foreign journalists are being prevented from covering the protests.

Commissioner Fuele has been to Tunisia twice in the last six months and is reportedly very sympathetic to the complaints of human rights groups, but is understood to be "exasperated" at the position of certain member states.

Earlier this week, Paris defended its north African ally against criticisms.

Bruno Le Maire, agriculture minister and the first member of the government to express a reaction to the crackdown, said: "Before judging a foreign government, better to know the situation on the ground and know exactly for which reasons such and such a decision has been taken."

"President Ben Ali is someone who is often misjudged," he added. "One can criticise certain aspects, to be vigilant regarding human rights, but it's not a country that has known any real difficulties."

Foreign minister Michele Alliot-Marie later said: "Our primary message should be that of friendship" between the French and Tunisian peoples.

"We should not set ourselves up as giving lessons" to Tunisia about a situation that is "complex".

Protesters for their part did not feel that the president's moves went far enough and continue to demand the president's immediate resignation.

Thousands descended upon the capital and some managed to climb atop the Interior Ministry while police hurled volleys of tear gas as the movement continued to gather momentum.

The demonstrations began in December in Sidi Bouzid after an unemployed graduate set himself alight in protest and died after police stopped him from selling vegetables without a permit.

The protests have since spread throughout the country and human rights groups are comparing the unrest to the democracy movement led by young people in Iran last year.

"There's really something new now going on in Tunisia," Matthieu Routier, the co-ordinator Tunisia and Algeria for Euromed Human Rights Network told EUobserver after he returned from the country.

"Already in 2008 we saw protests and the reaction of authorities was to press and arrest the heads of the movement. But what has changed now is the authorities' absolute failure to prevent the spread of the movement throughout the country."

He described how trade unions, lawyers, human rights defenders, and youth were employing many of the new media methods that have been seen elsewhere amongst protests around the world in the last couple of years.

"Despite censorship on a large scale, the protesters are using the internet to organise. Despite the dangers, young people are using their real names on Facebook, and they are learning what is actually going on from satellite television, especially al Jazeera."

"This is a democracy movement of the internet era, like what happened in Iran."

Mr Routier said there has been a real shift in the demands, from initially economic ones, centred around employment and food prices. After the repression, demonstrators are now calling for respect for freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.

"It's about corruption, social injustitice. About how the family of the president takes all the resources," he added.

One of the Wikileaks US cables released last year revealed that Washington considers the "regime ... schlerotic". Another, from June 2009 read: "Persistent rumors of corruption, coupled with rising inflation and continued unemployment, have helped to fuel frustration with the GOT [government of Tunisia] and have contributed to recent protests in southwestern Tunisia."

The government reacted to the Wikileaks cables by blocking access to the site and hunting for activists who were posting on social networks, leading some commentators to describe the movement as the first "Wikileaks Revolution."

With unrest this week exploding in neighbouring Algeria as well over skyrocketing food prices, Mr Routier said that the European Union is sitting on a "volcano" across north Africa: "There is an arc of dealing with these sort of regimes across the region, especially by France, which is supposed to be because this will provide stability."

"[EU] member states should be very worried. There is no stability. Young people feel 'If we don't have freedom, then violence is the only way for us to express ourselves.' The situation is very dangerous and will only get worse if human rights do not improve very, very rapidly."

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