Tunisia’s autocratic president, struggling to contain deadly riots that have destabilized his authority, made sweeping pledges for political and media freedom and said he will leave the presidency — but not until his term ends in 2014.
Facing the worst unrest in his 23 years in power, an unusually contrite President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ordered prices on sugar, milk and bread slashed. Buoyant crowds spilled into the streets after his speech, many cheering his price cuts but some questioning his commitment to real change.
His bold pledges appeared aimed at quelling public anger while allowing him to cling to power in Tunisia, a country long cherished by European tourists for its Mediterranean beaches and its stability, and seen as an ally against terrorism.
It remained to be seen whether Ben Ali’s speech will mean an end to violence that has left at least 23 dead and perhaps dozens more. Unions plan a general strike Friday in Tunis and some other regions.
Calling for a “cease-fire,” Ben Ali told his nation in a televised speech, “I have understood you.”
“I have understood the demands about unemployment, the demands about necessities, and the political demands for more freedoms,” he said.
Pent-up anger at unemployment, and at a leadership many see as controlling and corrupt, has exploded into protests and clashes with police over the past few weeks. The demonstrations started in the provinces but reached the capital this week.
Three more people were shot to death and six others injured by police in clashes Thursday night in the working class northern suburb of Kram, according to an employee at the Khereddine Hospital.
In the center of the capital, a protester was fatally shot and a journalist was hit in the leg by police gunfire as rioting youths clashed with police, witnesses said.
In his evening speech, Ben Ali said he had issued orders to the interior minister that no more bullets be fired on protesters, unless security forces are under threat.
“I won’t accept that another drop of blood of a Tunisian be spilled,” he said.
Significantly, Ben Ali said the 75-year age limit on presidential candidates should remain untouched. That would mean Ben Ali, who is 74, would not be able to run for a sixth term in 2014.
Ben Ali, who came to power in a bloodless coup in 1987, has prevented potential successors from emerging and sent many opponents to jail or into exile. Across Tunisia, buildings and signposts are plastered with Ben Ali’s image, his strangely ageless face framed by a thick helmet of jet black hair.
On Thursday, he pledged to end Internet censorship and to open up the political playing field in a country where he has clamped down on civil liberties, jailed opponents and tightly controlled the media.
“There will be from now on a total freedom of the press and a removal of Internet restrictions,” he said. “Many things have not worked as I wanted them to” in terms of democracy and freedoms, he said.
Online media and social networks have helped spread the outrage since a desperate young graduate tried to set himself on fire in a provincial town last month. That incident touched off protests around the country that turned into increasingly violent clashes with police before reaching the capital this week.
Social networks also helped spread U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks describing corruption in Tunisia. Many ordinary Tunisians who have complained of corruption for years felt vindicated to see the cables.
Families spilled into streets in the center of the capital after the president spoke, honking car horns, and happily shouting “Ben Ali, Ben Ali!” despite a curfew imposed because of the violence.
“I’m proud for the people,” said Ammar Zahrim, a 42-year-old architect in the cacophonous crowd.
But not everyone was a believer.
“This morning, police were firing on people. At night everything changes. Something is not normal,” said Abide Sayfedine, a 23-year-old industrial design student. He claimed that the demonstration was organized by Ben Ali’s party, RCD.
On Thursday, rioters hurled stones at trams and government buildings in Tunisia’s capital. The smell of tear gas filled the air, and so many stones littered the streets that it was difficult to walk through one riot-hit neighborhood.
In one clash in central Tunis, police fired on protesters with bullets, two witnesses said. One protester was hit by a sniper on the balcony of a building overlooking the violence, said witness Hassene Ayadi, who lives in the surrounding La Fayette neighborhood.
Video obtained by The Associated Press shows an injured man in the neighborhood with bloodied legs taken into a doorway and surrounded by medics, as gunshots ring out in the background.
In the melee of the La Fayette protest, an American journalist was wounded in the leg, according to another witness who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concerns for his security. The witness said police did not appear to be targeting the journalist.
The journalist’s identity and employer were not immediately clear. The U.S. Embassy would not comment, citing privacy considerations. The shooting was not immediately confirmed by Tunisian authorities.
The International Federation of Human Rights Leagues, known by its French acronym FIDH, said Thursday it has tallied 66 dead in the unrest so far, including seven people who killed themselves. French and Swiss citizens visiting their native country were among those killed, the two European governments said.
Al-Qaida’s offshoot in the region appeared to be trying to capitalize on the violence. In a message broadcast on extremist forums, the leader of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, Abdelmalek Droukdel, offered support for protesters in Tunisia.
There has been no indication of a militant Islamist role in the rioting. The U.S. calls Tunisia a strong ally in the fight against international Islamist terror groups, which Ben Ali has over the years claimed threaten the nation.
European governments warned citizens about travel in Tunisia, where the tourism industry is key to the economy.
For years, Ben Ali has had an unspoken pact with his people: The trade off for a lack of civil rights and freedom of speech has been better quality of life than in neighboring countries like Algeria and Libya. But now riots have erupted over a major economic trouble spot that Ben Ali hasn’t been able to solve — joblessness.