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Tunisian Government Closes Schools As Unrest Spreads

Smoke fills a street in Rgeb, Tunisia, where funeral processions were being held on January 10 for people shot in recent clashes with police.
Classrooms across Tunisia stood empty today as authorities indefinitely shut down all schools and universities in an attempt to stamp out violent riots over unemployment.

The riots, which began in mid-December after a 26-year-old university graduate set himself on fire to protest the confiscation of his fruit and vegetable cart, has rocked this usually quiet nation. The man died of his injuries.

Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (IFHR) says at least 35 people have been killed in riots that erupted over the weekend, while Amnesty International gave a figure of 23 dead.

Tunisian unions officials say at least 50 were killed.

Activists in Tunisia, an authoritarian state ruled by strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, have branded the events as the "Jasmine revolt," after Tunisia's national flower.

Ben Ali himself remained defiant in a televised address on Monday (January 10), defending the police's action and describing the weekend clashes as a "terrorist act" orchestrated by foreign parties.

"I come to you today after what we have seen in several cities and villages in chaos and misinformation and damage to public and private property," he said, according to Reuters. "Violent and often bloody events led to the deaths of civilians and injured a number of security men. The events were carried out by masked gangs who attacked public institutions during the cover of night, even [attacking] citizens in their homes in a terrorist act that we cannot remain silent about."

The president also pledged to create 300,000 extra jobs over the next two years, in a bid to placate demonstrators angry at rampant unemployment among the country's educated youth.

Some 80,000 university graduates are currently jobless, out of a population of 10 million.

Most of the unrest so far has been limited to provincial towns, with the capital of Tunis largely unaffected. But rioting appears to have reached parts of Tunisia's more prosperous coastal holiday resorts, dealing a harsh blow to Tunisia's reputation as a peaceful tourist paradise.

The youth's mounting frustration over unemployment has also shaken the image of Tunisia, widely praised abroad for its modernization drive, as a model of stability in the Arab world.

"The international community is now looking at Tunisia whereas previously it had always been a nice, small, stable, liberalizing state," said Claire Spencer, who heads the North Africa program at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. "The majority of the population is 25 years old and under, people are becoming more aware that the money is going into very limited circles and that the opportunities for the majority of the population are limited. I think this will now become the key issue in Tunisia. Whether it's dealt with through more protests or through greater activism by trade unions remains to be seen."

Ben Ali's government has come under unprecedented criticism in recent days.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for restraint and respect for free expression. The European Union and France also called for calm and voiced regret over the deaths, while the United States condemned the heavy-handed crackdown on rioters.

U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley also expressed concern over the Tunisian government's alleged arrests of dissident bloggers and moves to block critical websites.

"There is a way of dealing with those who are, in fact, trying to incite violence while preserving, for the balance of the population, the right to assemble, the right to freely express views, and the right to have access to the Internet," Crowley said.

Tunis has firmly dismissed the international community's concerns.

Tunisian authorities, unaccustomed to dissent either from inside or outside his country, summoned the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia, Gordon Gray, to voice their "astonishment" at Washington's stance.

So far, the protesters' main complaints have centered on the lack of economic opportunities for young people. But the disenchantment behind the recent riots goes deeper.

"The underlying structural issue is, do you need such high levels of repression on freedoms of association and speech and indeed even on private sector initiatives outside the circles of power? Do you really need to clamp down on those so much?" Spencer said. "Tunisia is traditionally a constitution-based state and I think there might be an organized response to this precisely because the balance between keeping people in check and limiting their freedoms has probably gone too far."

Analysts say the recent violence is unlikely to pose a threat to the government of Ben Ali, who has ruled his predominantly Muslim nation with an iron fist since taking power in 1987.

The unrest is nonetheless the worst civilian disobedience he has had to face in his 23-year rule.

compiled from agency reports