Tunisia: the US speaks

Yesterday – day 22 of the Tunisian uprising – the US State Department made its first public comment on events in Tunisia and neighbouring Algeria. A senior official said:

We’re certainly watching what’s happening both in Tunisia and Algeria with a great deal of interest. We did call in the Tunisian ambassador yesterday and expressed our concern about both what is happening with regard to the demonstrations and encouraged the Tunisian Government to ensure that civil liberties are protected, including the freedom to peacefully assemble.

We also raised the issue of Tunisian – what looks like Tunisian Government interference with the internet, most notably Facebook accounts. Frankly speaking, we’re quite concerned about this and we’re looking at the best and most effective way to respond and to get the result we want.

In Algeria – this is something I actually watched with a great deal of personal interest having served there as ambassador for three years – it’s frankly too soon to tell exactly what is happening here. There have been, as you are well aware, price increases as well as an acute housing shortage, which have not been well-managed by the government. And as a result, people are taking to the streets. We understand that there was some additional demonstration and rioting today. We don’t know the extent of it. But we’re also looking there about what’s the most effective and immediate thing to say and do.

Regarding the summoning of the Tunisian ambassador, a spokesman said the State Department had raised "concerns about the ability of the people of Tunisia to exercise their rights and freedom of expression and freedom of assembly." It had also urged "restraint on all sides".

Many people will no doubt be relieved that the US has finally spoken. But, as I have argued here before, the Obama Administration has to be careful. Strong American support for the protesters could by used by the regime to discredit them.

However, there are other things that outsiders might do to put pressure on the regime. Tunisia's economy depends heavily on tourism – it's a popular holiday destination for Europeans. A non-governmental boycott campaign focusing on tourism would be a good start.

In Tunisia itself, the authorities have made a serious public relations blunder by arresting Hamada Ben-Amor ("The General"), a well-known rapper, who had released a song entitled "President, your people are dying". Around 30 plainclothes police turned up at his house on Thursday night to take the 22-year-old singer away.

This generated more than 60 news stories in the world's media about his arrest (many of which also went on to talk more generally about the uprising). The result was exactly what the authorities have been seeking to avoid – far more international attention directed towards Tunisia than on any single day since the trouble began.

Several bloggers are also reported to have been arrested.

Public demonstrations around the country appear to have intensified yesterday – not entirely surprising, since it was a Friday (the Muslim weekend). The Los Angeles Times has a fairly detailed summary of recent events, compiled from Beirut. There is still virtually no reporting on the ground by journalists in Tunisia; a reporter from Le Monde was refused entry yesterday.

Meanwhile, the Anonymous News Network has issued a videofilmed secretly from inside a car. It is said to show a military convoy heading into Thala (western Tunisia) as police buses move out. A tank can be clearly seen on the back of one of the trucks. 

The implication behind this is that the military could be taking over from the police in some areas. However, there was also a claim on Twitter yesterday (and consequently difficult to verify) that the army chief, Rachid Ammar, was refusing to let the military be used in suppressing the uprising.

AFP and al-Jazeera have reports on the riots in Algeria. There are some parallels with Tunisia – the rioters are protesting against high prices and unemployment – though whether the disturbances will continue and spread, as they did in Tunisia, remains to be seen.

Below: another of The General's songs.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 Jan 2011.

UPDATE, 10 January: Hamada Ben-Amor's family stated that he was released after three days.