TUNIS -- Thousands of demonstrators filled the boulevard outside the Interior Ministry here on Friday, calling for the immediate resignation of President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in an extraordinary escalation of the monthlong protests against his authoritarian government, The New York Times reports.
Protesters held up their hands as if they were handcuffed, at a rally in front of the interior ministry in Tunis on Friday.
Instead of denouncing his government, however, many appeared to be celebrating what they believed to be its imminent collapse.
The crowd chanted: “Victory, victory, until the government falls,” “Bread and water and no Ben Ali,” and, referring to a college-educated street vendor whose self-immolation set off the protests, “Bouazizi you are a hero, the people of Tunisia have won.”
Many poured particular scorn on the president’s second wife, Leila Tabelsi, a former hairdresser, whose humble family has risen to vast wealth and power since her 1992 marriage. “Policeman open, your eyes, the hairdresser is ruling you,” was another chant, referring to the president as a policeman because he led internal security forces before the bloodless 1987 coup that brought him to power.
Tunisia has not seen demonstrations like this since President Ben Ali came to power 23 years ago. Tunisians have been accustomed to living under a police state that countered unauthorized public gatherings with arrests and possible torture. Dozens have died over the last week as security forces — including snipers, witnesses say — fired on protesters.
But on Thursday night Mr. Ben Ali delivered a televised speech that sought to placate the protesters by pledging to stop using live ammunition against them.
He also promised to step down in 2014 at the end of his current term, when he will be 77.
Liberated by his pledges of restraint, Tunisians began taking to the street early in the morning, and the crowds grew as it became clear that the police were indeed standing on the sidelines without shooting demonstrators.
The crowd was notably middle-class, including young doctors and lawyers and other professionals. Some identified themselves as the “Bourguiba generation” — young people who benefited from the free higher education and other social welfare policies instituted under Tunisia’s first post-independence president, Habib Bourguiba.
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