Behind The Tunisian Uprising: Butter And Guns

One-party rule and too few jobs are stirring anger in North Africa

President Ben Ali (Sarah Murray)


The popular uprising in Tunisia, and the government's violent crackdown, has now entered its third week – and finally reached the streets of the capital. The stakes couldn't be higher for President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who has been mixing the rhetoric of appeasement with brute force.

In a televised speech Thursday night, the 74-year-old leader -- who has not allowed any real opposition in more than two decades of rule -- ordered cuts in food prices, pledged to stopping blocking Internet access, and even hinted that he would abandon the presidency by 2014.

Ben Ali told his nation, "I have understood you. I won't accept that another drop of the blood of a Tunisian be spilled," according to the Associated Press. He stated he would not change the standing presidential age limit of 75, which means he would be ineligible to run when his latest term expires in three years.

Still, it is unclear how to read his latest vows. The government crackdown did not abate after Ben Ali forced the Interior Minister to step down earlier in the week. Activists say scores have died, while the government reports 23 deaths from the clashes, which began in the wake of the December self-immolation of an unemployed university graduate protesting government's economic policy.

A curfew imposed Wednesday night has not managed to stop violent protests, and soldiers reportedly fired live bullets into the crowd in the capital, Tunis, killing at least one protester and injuring an unidentified American journalist. Schools and universities remain indefinitely closed.

It seems the Tunisian public was willing to put up with decades of single-party rule (Ben Ali was re-elected for a fifth term in 2009 with 89.62% of the vote), with severe media restrictions, with the vast high-level corruption, with the First Family taking the most lucrative businesses for itself (a claim bolstered by the Wikileaks cables) and an unaccountable intelligence service.

But what the crisis really seems to be about is jobs. The official unemployment rate stands at 14 percent, though official jobs numbers in the Arab world are usually half the economic reality on the ground. The rioters are risking their lives to voice their anger, an indicator of how little they feel they have to lose. With 55 percent of the country under 25 years of age, the young people of Tunisia clearly feel their future prospects are grim.

The international community has done little to stop the violence other than generic calls for restraint. But if a Facebook group is any indicator, foreign assistance is exactly what protesters don't want. The Arabic-language "Urgent updates on the Tunisian protests' group, which shot up from 16,000 members to 47,000 this week, hosts an album of images demanding the United States and France not intervene. People seem to feel that foreign intervention will bolster Ben Ali's stake on power. Other images include cartoons critical of the ruling family, one with prison bars superimposed over a picture of the president.

One aspect of the crisis that has raised concerns abroad is the difficulty in breaking through Tunisia's media censorship, even in the digital age. The government is reportedly hacking into social networking and email accounts to prevent word from reaching outside Tunisia. The national media is virtually ignoring the disturbances and providing fawning coverage of the government as doing its best to stop terror from destabilizing society. Foreign reporters are being kept away from as much of the unrest as possible, forced to cite other reports second-hand. Still, it is clear that, for now at least, the protests are continuing, even growing, as the Tunisian people do what other repressed Arab citizens have not: rely on each other and dare to speak out.

Kristen Gillespie


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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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