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Tunisia: The end of an era

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Photo by AFPBy Hashem Ahelbarra 

Those who watched President Ben Ali delivering his most recent speech noticed a man with a trembling voice saying the opposite of what he stood for.

He said that he was sorry, that he's been duped by his entourage, that now he got the message and that he will leave power in 2014.

Was he genuine or just buying time.? He is definitely in damage control mode, and while we don't know for sure what his next move will be, it's pretty much obvious that the glass ceiling of fear has been for ever shattered in Tunisia and that the police state that Ben Ali created in 1987 when he came to power in a coup seems to be disintegrating.

It all started about a month ago when a public suicide of a frustrated, disillusioned Tunisian grew into widespread anger. Days later the ink-spot has been ever growing in an unprecedented scope and magnitude.

The outcry against unemployment rapidly evolved into a popular movement asking for Ben Ali to leave power, for corruption to be rooted out and for the repressive police apparatus to be held accountable for human rights abuses.

My first trip to Tunisia was in 1999 during the general elections which were a classic example of vote rigging. The polls were swept by the ruling party. Few cosmetic reforms were ensued to placate the international community.

But Ben Ali's desire for unchallenged rule was insatiable. A clampdown on the opposition continued showing no signs of abating. He kept rigging votes, trampling on the constitution confident his actions wouldn't stir muddy waters.

The US and France were in love with Ben Ali. They were impressed with his persecution of the Islamists, his economic agenda was touted as a brilliant model that could be replicated in North Africa. and he proved to be a staunch US ally actively involved in the controversial rendition programme.

For these reasons, the US tolerated Ben Ali's long record on human rights abuses. and when young people were killed in the recent protests, Washington and Paris chose to stand by their ally.

French newspaper Le Monde lashed out at President Sarkozy and the EU's "Silence over the Tragedy".  When unrest broke in the country, President Ben Ali blamed it on "terrorists" - a reaction very symptomatic of dictators completely detached from reality who rush to lay the blame on a scapegoat to deflect attention from the core issue: that He alone is to blame.

His fear tactic backfired. He later backtracked by firing his closest aides, apologising for not listening to his people and promising more liberties and rights.

A panicky information minister who has banned Al Jazeera from reporting inside the country, suddenly appeared on the channel's main show. When asked by the news anchor ( a Tunisian) about whether Al Jazeera would be granted access,  the official paused for a second and then said: "please tune in to our local channel and show the world the thousands of people now taking to the streets chanting slogans of support for their leader!".

But their leader is widely known for making a plethora of pledges only to be broken afterwards.

Hashem Ahelbarra is a roving Middle East correspondent for Al Jazeera English.


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