Tunisian Leader Asks Restive People To Be Patient

Tunisia’s stability, fragile since President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia over three weeks ago, was further rocked in the past few days by violent clashes with police and dozens of protests by people demanding jobs or higher wages.

In his first public appearance in weeks, interim head of state Fouad Mebazza went on state television to promise the start of a national dialogue to try to address citizens’ demands.

“I know that all your requests are legitimate but one must be rational and have patience in the difficult situation which our country is confronted with,” said Mebazza, who was speaker of parliament before stepping in as president after Ben Ali’s departure.

“We are soon going to launch social negotiations on a national scale. These negotiations will be with all the sectors.”

Five people have been killed since Friday in violent incidents in provincial cities, several regional governors have been forced to quit by protests. The government has asked military reservists to report for duty so they could be mobilised to help restore order.

There appeared to be a respite on Wednesday, with no reports of violence or large-scale protests.

Tunisia’s overthrow of its president after 23 years of autocratic rule provided inspiration to protest movements in other parts of the region, including Egypt. Now its faltering progress back to stability is being closely watched by the outside world.

Under Ben Ali, many Tunisians did not voice their demands for better living conditions because they feared arrest or police harassment. His overthrow, and promises by the new government to respect democratic freedoms, have unleashed a wave of protests and strikes over issues from low wages to poor working conditions and unemployment.