To Calm Unrest, Tunisia's President Promises Changes

Tunisia's president is facing the worst unrest in his 23 years in power. Earlier this week, protesters clashed with police and the violence spread across the North African country. The president has promised sweeping changes, and says he'll step down in 2014. Demonstrators, however, have returned to the streets.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The North African country of Tunisia has prospered in recent years, and is a popular destination for Western tourists who go there for its beaches and antiquities. But its people have been living under an authoritarian president who's ruled for nearly a quarter of a century.

Last night, they took to the streets, celebrating what could be a turning point. The president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, agreed to sweeping reforms and says he won't run for reelection in 2014.

Eleanor Beardsley is in the capital, Tunis, and joins us now.

Hello, Eleanor.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: You know, remind us of what's behind all of this, how it got started.

BEARDSLEY: Well, I love the way one French newspaper characterized President Ben Ali and Tunisia. He said he's a little Caesar of a democratic facade. And that's really what Tunisia is. It's not a real democracy. There's no real freedom of speech. The press is censored. Opposition has either been jailed or exiled. There's cronyism, corruption.

It is a peaceful tourist destination. Europeans love to come to the beaches. And all that has worked for a while because when the economy was OK, people accepted, you know, a lesser degree of freedoms. But then when the economy tanked, things went bad.

And what happened was a young man, university educated, in the south of the country, couldn't find a job, like many young Tunisians. And so he bought a stand and started selling fruits and vegetables. Well, the government confiscated his stand and apparently slapped him in the face and humiliated him.

And so he was so frustrated, he set himself on fire in front of the town hall, and he died. And that struck a chord with people, because many people are unemployed. Many people, you know, are educated and they just can't make ends meet.

It not only struck a chord with people in Tunisia of all ages and, you know, economic backgrounds, but also throughout the Arab world. There's a lot of pent-up frustration over the economy, over rulers that keep people tamped down. So that just ignited the country, and young people started rioting.

MONTAGNE: And initially, the government responded itself with violence. It -protestors were shot and killed.

BEARDSLEY: That's right. Even by the government's own admission, 23 people were killed. The opposition says about 50 people were killed. Yeah, apparently, government snipers shot people from rooftops.

So it was very bad violence. The whole world - and the Arab world, in particular - has been watching Tunisia, because this - it's a huge crisis. The government was shocked by the people's outpouring of anger, because, as you said, President Ben Ali has ruled for 23 years, and there's been nothing like this before.

MONTAGNE: What made the president change?

BEARDSLEY: Well, Renee, it seems that he was shocked and overwhelmed by the violence that's been going on here for the past month. He went on TV last night, and he said to the Tunisian people: I have heard you. I've understood you. And he really spoke to them. And people said for the first time, he used the Tunisia dialect and not classical Arabic. And he told them: I'm going to give you press freedoms. I'm going to open up the country and give you freedoms. I'm not going to run again in 2014. He promised no more violence. He promised jobs.

So he really seemed - he was contrite. He was sorry about the deaths. And he gave them what they wanted. So, you know, in 24 hours, the country completely changed.

After President Ben Ali's speech, people just poured out into the streets screaming, you know, you're the father of our country. We love you. We love Ben Ali. I mean, they just couldn't tell you how much they loved him. So everything has completely changed in the last, I'd say, 12 hours.

MONTAGNE: And I suppose, just briefly, the question is: Will that last, and will he deliver?

BEARDSLEY: Well, Renee, that's what everyone's waiting to see. There's been a turning point. The crisis has been averted for now. But he has to stick to his promises.

And I think we'll something immediately, because the opposition is holding a demonstration today. And I can already hear it out into the street - out in the street right now. And people are sounding angry. So what are the opposition people going to say? Are they going to think that what Ben Ali did was enough? So we'll see pretty soon.

MONTAGNE: Eleanor, thanks very much.

Eleanor Beardsley, speaking to us from Tunis, Tunisia.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And we'll continue to bring you updates on these anti-government protests as we get new information through the morning.

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