Signs of a Falling Dictator
"The Tunisian president has sacked his interior minister after a deadly wave of violent unrest engulfed the capital, Tunis, for the first time.
"Rafik Belhaj Kacem, who was responsible for the police force which has been widely criticised for its ruthless response to the protests, was dismissed on Wednesday.
"But the dismissal did little to douse public anger immediately and hundreds of protesters emerged from a souk, or market, in the capital and hurled stones at police at a key intersection on Wednesday. Officers responded with volleys of tear gas, driving the protesters to disperse into adjoining streets. Stores in the area were shuttered...
"Mohamed Ghannouchi, the prime minister, told a press conference on Wednesday that all those arrested in the wave of demonstrations had been released, but gave no figure for how many had been originally detained.
"Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the president, had only a few days earlier accused the rioters of committing acts of terrorism."
Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi tried something similar shortly before he fell from power in Iran. What Ben Ali has done is legitimize the complaints against his regime while walking back some of the intimidation on which his power is based. It is a belated attempt to conciliate the protesters that early signs show has not worked, as demonstrations continue to grow and spread. It may be a prelude to legitimize an eventual crackdown, but if so, the strategy probably depends for its success on some demonstrators being appeased.
Further complicating the picture is the ongoing arrest of opposition leaders. Does Ben Ali really believe they matter to the protests, or is this an attempt by the regime more broadly speaking to limit competition for an eventual succession?