Violent clashes continued today in the North African nation of Tunisia. Protestors continued to voice their displeasure with a lack of job opportunities in the country, and with the corruption and cronyism they say is endemic in Tunisia.
Graphic videos posted online showed grim scenes of civilian injuries in the city of Kasserine, in west-central Tunisia. In the capital Tunis, reports claimed that the army had all but cleared out most of the downtown area, in an effort to quell demonstrators.
All of country’s schools and universities remain closed.
Dozens have been killed or injured since the violence began last month, after a university graduate working as street vendor in the town of Sidi Bouzid set himself on fire.
The 26 year old, Mohammed Bouazizi, was protesting the fact that Tunisian officials had shut down his street vending business. Bouazizi died last week, setting off a new round of protests.
Those watching from outside Tunisia are getting two dramatically different takes on events in the country.
Today, state-controlled television showed buildings that had been damaged during the clashes. One man who was interviewed told the protesters, “If you want to make a point about something, do it in a legal way, not through destruction.”
In an address to the nation yesterday, Tunisian President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, blamed the violence on “masked gangs.”
Ben Ali, now in his 23rd year of power, contends that “a small group of hostile elements” incited students and unemployed youths to commit what he calls “acts of terror.”
He said he would do whatever it takes to protect Tunisian citizens, and he threatened to keep schools and universities closed until the violence abated.
Finally, he pledged to create 300,000 new jobs in the coming years to alleviate high unemployment.
But those featured on non-Tunisian controlled media were not buying Ben Ali’s official picture.
“Everywhere you find groups of police with batons, ready to beat people, ready to shoot,” said Radia Nasraoui, President of the Association for the Struggle Against Torture in Tunisia. Speaking the the BBC World Service, Nasraoui continued: “Ben Ali was promising many things during twenty years or more, and people can see that there is nothing concrete, no solutions.”
The revolt also continued online, with social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter filled with reports of police and army violence against civilians from across Tunisia.
One hot spot is Kasserine, a town of around 75,000 people in west-central Tunisia. Eyewitnesses say that the violence there has been especially intense. “The government treats us like animals,” one protester told the BBC’s Arabic Service.
Numerous messages on Twitter contend that the government has deployed snipers on the roofs of buildings in the town. And a grisly handheld video, purportedly shot in a Kasserine hospital emergency room, was taken down from YouTube because it showed numerous civilians who had gunshot wounds to their necks, chests and heads.
The video, however, was quickly distributed through other online channels. One Tunisian Twitter user called it “a massacre.” Another wrote that “Ben Ali and his minions are the real terrorists.”
Facebook and Twitter have become critical tools in getting word out about what is going on in Tunisia. More than a million Tunisians are on Facebook – some with more than one account due to the fact that the Tunisian government often shuts down one of the accounts.
Facebook is the place where Tunisians spread non-official news and videos. It is also used to arrange real world meet-ups and demonstrations.
Among Internet watchers, the Tunisian government is known for being one of the most infamous offenders when it comes to online censorship. The regime doesn’t just block and filter websites.
“They have hundreds of people doing social engineering,” said Fabrice Epelboin, editor of the French version of the tech news website Read Write Web. “You could call it community management, except in this case it’s being done against the community, to terrorize the community.”
Epelboin said Tunisian authorities have gone so far as to create fake Islamic terrorist profiles on Facebook, in order to “tell the citizens and the international community – look, if we’re not here to protect you, you’ll be living in a horrible Islamist regime.”
That said, Epelboin does not think that President Ben Ali can afford to block Facebook entirely. “He tried that almost a year ago, and there were massive riots. If he did it now, it would really be civil war.”
The same with Twitter, which Tunisians inside and outside the country are using to try to spread word of the situation inside Tunisia to a global audience.
Lina Ben Mhenni, an activist and author of the blog “A Tunisian Girl,” says that young Tunisians have very good reasons for standing up to the Tunisian authorities. “Young people are very angry, and very fed up with the lack of freedom of expression, of freedom in general,” she told the BBC. “They want to move beyond the fear they usually have of trying to change things.”
The Tunisian authorities have cracked down on some bloggers that have spoken out against the regime.
Late last week, blogger Slim Amamou was arrested less than 24 hours after doing an interview with The World. He is still being detained.