TUNIS (Reuters) - Thousands of Tunisian lawyers went on strike on Thursday to demand an end to what they said were beatings by security forces, the latest civil disobedience in a protest movement that has led to unprecedented unrest.
Street protests by students, professionals and youths angry at a shortage of jobs and restrictions on public freedoms have grown into the most widespread and violent flare-up of popular dissent in President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s 23-year rule.
The protests were triggered last month when a young man set himself on fire in front of a government building in the central town of Sidi Bouzid, saying he was driven to the act by police who had seized his fruit and vegetable cart over a permit.
His self-immolation was embraced as a cause celebre by jobless graduates, trade unionists and human right activists. Protests spread to other towns including the capital Tunis.
The man, Mohammed Bouazizi, 26, died on Tuesday of his burns. Demonstrations had tapered off last week but resumed on Wednesday after his burial.
Three eyewitnesses in Sidi Bouzid said a woman had climbed an electric pole after Bouazizi’s burial and threatened to commit suicide with her three children in protest against poor living conditions. Officials persuaded her to abandon the idea.
In the western town of Thala, police used water cannons to disperse protesters. Many of the demonstrators were students, some of whom pelted police with firebombs, witnesses said. The protesters demanded that the police force leave the town and release people detained during the protests.
Authorities later ordered the closure of schools and colleges in Thala until further notice, said representatives of the teachers’ union there. Government officials could not immediately comment on these accounts.
Protests have been rare in Tunisia, which has had only two presidents since independence from France 55 years ago. The country has in the past been praised by Western allies as a model of stability and prosperity in the Arab world.
Abderrazek Kilani, Chairman of the Bar, told Reuters 95 percent of Tunisia’s 8,000 lawyers had joined the strike, called in protest against beatings they received from police at sit-ins in Tunis and other towns last week.
“The strike carries a clear message that we do not accept unjustified attacks on lawyers,” he said. “We want to strongly protest against the beating of lawyers in the past few days.”
Government officials could not immediately comment.
Apart from Bouazizi, three people are reported to have died in the unrest. Two civilians were killed last month when police fired in what they called “self-defence” to quell rioters in the southern town of Bouziane.
According to media reports, a jobless graduate also killed himself by clinging to a high-voltage electric cable to protest against “misery and unemployment”.
Western nations see Ben Ali as a crucial ally in combating extremist Islamic ideologies.
Tunisia, a minor oil producer with a Mediterranean coastline that is popular with European tourists, has done more than many Arab states to empower women and provide education for youth. But some Tunisians complain that investment has focussed on the coast and left other areas marginalised.
The government has accused opponents of manipulating the Sidi Bouzid clashes to discredit the authorities, and Ben Ali said that violent protests were unacceptable.
Editing by Peter Graff