Tunisia’s autocratic president, struggling to contain riots that have destabilised 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 in Tunis and some other regions.
Calling for a “ceasefire”, 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 fatally shot and six others injured by police in clashes on Thursday night in the working class northern suburb of Kram, according to an employee at the Khereddine Hospital.
In the centre of the capital, a protester also died after being 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.