By Mohamed Hasni and Hamida Ben Salah/AFP
TUNIS: Thousands of protesters demanded President Zein El Abidine Ben Ali resign in marches across the country Friday, emboldened by his dramatic pledge to step down in 2014 in a bid to quell weeks of unrest.
“No to Ben Ali, the uprising continues,” hundreds shouted in a march down the main boulevard in central Tunis while thousands more took to the streets in other towns shouting “Ben Ali Out!”.
In the capital lawyers in black robes and nurses in white uniforms joined hundreds of unionists and ordinary citizens shouting slogans like “We will carry on until the regime falls,” AFP reporters said.
Brandishing a placard that read “Ben Ali Go,” the crowd massed outside the interior ministry, branding it “a ministry of terror” after a ruthless crackdown on protests and paying tribute to the “blood of the martyrs.”
Security forces surrounded the ministry but did not try to disperse the group, unlike in a wave of earlier protests that erupted in a small western town in mid-December to spread to much of the country.
Tunisia’s ambassador to UNESCO resigned in protest at Ben Ali’s bloody crackdown on the country’s social protests, in a letter seen by AFP on Friday.
A Paris-based rights group says 66 people have been killed in the worst unrest faced in the 23 years of Ben Ali’s iron-fisted rule, several times higher than the official toll,
“This is a demonstration of hope,” said Moncef Ben Mrad, editor of an independent newspaper. “It is the birth of a people who demand more freedom and that the families that have looted the country return the wealth and are called to account,” he said.
In a bid to quell the unrest, Ben Ali promised in a national address Thursday that he would not seek another term in office and vowed to liberalize the political system.
Addressing other complaints from protesters, he pledged to lower the prices of basic commodities such as milk, bread and sugar, and lift restrictions on the Internet.
The 74-year-old leader also announced he had ordered police to stop firing on protesters and admitted the spreading wave of unrest had been mishandled.
In an earlier attempt restore calm, he vowed Monday to create 300,000 new jobs. Unemployment — officially at 14 percent, although other estimates put it at double that figure — was an initial spark for the outpouring of anger.
Demonstrations also erupted in several towns outside the capital Friday while the main Tunisian General Union of Labor (UGTT) called a two-hour strike.
About 3,000 people marched in Sidi Bouzid, from where the wave of protests was unleashed after the suicide of a young graduate, an AFP reporter said.
Another 700 took to the streets in nearby Regueb, where protesters dubbed the central November 7 Square, named for the date Ben Ali took power in 1987, the Martyrs Square.
Marchers yelled “Ben Ali Out!” in the central town of Kairouan, with the same slogan used in Gafsa in the southwest, union sources said.
The mainstream opposition largely welcomed Ben Ali’s speech on Thursday.
“The positive fact is that the president decided not to stand again,” said Mohammed Nejib Chebbi, long-standing leader of the Progressive Democratic Party, which is legal but not represented in parliament.
In a reflection of a radical political change, Ben Ali’s foreign minister indicated that a national unity government could be established.
It is “feasible, even totally normal,” Kamel Morjane told France’s Europe 1 radio station. He gave no details of who he thought might take part.
France also welcomed Ben Ali’s offer to form a more inclusive government.
“We listened to the measures he announced to encourage openness. We encourage him to continue along this route,” foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero told reporters.
With the tensions mounting, tourism company Thomas Cook said it was evacuating about 2,000 German holidaymakers from Tunisia Friday.
Mauritania and Senegal meanwhile ordered measures to keep food prices down, with Algeria also shaken by protests this month over food costs.
Tunisia’s ambassador to UNESCO resigned in protest at President Zein El Abidine Ben Ali’s bloody crackdown on the country’s social protests, in a letter seen by AFP on Friday.
“I place my resignation in your hands,” wrote the ambassador Mezri Haddad, in the letter to Tunisian President.
“I decided in soul and conscience to step down,” he told AFP by telephone, saying he could no longer defend Tunisian state repression of demonstrators as an ambassador to the UN cultural body.
“I can no longer bear people being killed. I do not want anarchy in my country,” he said.
In his letter, Haddad cited complaints he had made to Ben Ali about the police crackdown on demonstrations. Haddad, a former political opponent of Ben Ali, said in the letter he had begged the president “to stop the bloodbath by disarming the police.”
“I told you that the protestors are not against you but against the oligarchy to which you have fallen hostage and which has plundered the country’s riches without cease,” he wrote.
CAPTION: General secretary of the opposition Progressive Democratic party (PDP) Maya Jeridi (C) shouts slogans in front the Interior Ministry in Habib Bourguiba avenue in Tunis on Jan. 14. (AFP Photo/Fethi Belaid)