Riots in Tunisia have spread to the country’s capital for the first time, pushing the death toll higher and leaving European observers on edge.
The unrest also touched the Swiss capital, Bern, early on Wednesday, when several fire bombs were hurled at the Tunisian embassy. The devices failed to explode, causing minor damage and no injuries.
A Geneva-based support committee for Tunisians distanced itself from the Bern attack and issued a statement “reaffirming its commitment to a peaceful popular uprising”. Anwar Gharbi, committee coordinator, said daily rallies would be held in Geneva to show solidarity with Tunisian protestors.
Swiss media and political scientists say the violence, sparked by rising unemployment, dwindling prosperity and an iron-fist regime, is pushing Tunisia toward a second independence movement after four generations of post-colonial disillusionment. Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956.
Ahmed Benani, a Maghreb political scientist at Geneva and Lausanne universities, told Swiss public radio that it was only a matter of time before the ripples reached Europe.
“This is a hypothesis, but be aware that the support – or silence – in some Western countries on the Ben Ali regime has angered many North Africans living in Europe,” he said.
The unrest in North Africa is worrisome for Europeans, who see the region as something of a bulwark against radical Islam.
“The European Union has an interest in keeping a strong partnership,” Ivan Ureta, a professor of international relations at King’s College in London, told Swiss public radio. “This is why countries including France, Spain and Italy have not clearly condemned what happened.”
On Wednesday the Swiss foreign ministry issued a brief statement, saying it “deplores” the deaths and calling for human rights to be respected. It said the Tunisian ambassador had been summoned to receive Switzerland’s concerns.
The problems began in December, when a college graduate unable to find meaningful work set himself on fire after police confiscated vegetables he was peddling without a permit. The situation then exploded across the country.
The issue has been compounded by Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who has ruled the country for more than 20 years with little patience for opposition. Many residents grudgingly accepted the autocratic regime in exchange for a modicum of prosperity.
A report by the Swiss-based World Economic Forum (Wef) ranked Tunisia as Africa’s most competitive market.
But with the rising cost of living eroding Tunisians’ earnings and unemployment now officially at 14 per cent (the rate is believed to be double that among young college graduates), people’s tolerance has worn thin.
Time to go?
In the month of violence that has ensued, 23 people have died, according to an official count. Some international human rights groups say the figure could be double that.
As soldiers moved into the centre of the capital Tunis on Wednesday, Ben Ali changed course dramatically and fired his interior minister. He also ordered the release of all those detained in a wave of violent clashes.
The damage may already be done, says Antonella Tarquini, a journalist who has covered the Maghreb for years.
“Ben Ali now has no more credibility,” Tarquini told Swiss-Italian radio. “The promise of 300,000 jobs by 2012 does not appear to have worked as hoped precisely because, for young people, it is not just about jobs.”
Tarquini says the regime’s push for better education has created a young population that also wants more freedom and the ability to speak out.
“I don’t think you can go back after this kind of awareness,” she said. “Especially after the deaths.”
Benani agrees. “The only possible solution is for Ben Ali to leave,” he said.