A synagogue was set on fire in Gabes, a city in southern Tunisia on February 1 as gangs rampaged through schools in Tunis. The army responded amidst fears of increasing disorder following the revolt that toppled former President Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali. Changes in the government have resulted in otherwise peaceful days since Ben Ali's departure on January 14, following days of protests that ended 23 years of strict police rule. There were reportedly 147 persons killed during Tunisia's days of rage.
A spokesman for Tunisia's tiny Jewish community said he was not aware of the identity of the attackers on the synagogue. The spokesman condemned the assault as an effort to sow discord between Jews and Muslims in Tunisia who have otherwise lived for decades in peace. Overwhelmingly Muslim, Tunisia has one of the largest Jewish communities in North Africa. The last attack came in 2002, when Al Qaeda killed 21 people in a synagogue attack on the island of Djerba.
In other signs of mob violence, marauders entered several schools in Tunis, terrifying students. In Carthage, Tunisian army units fired over the heads of the marauders to disperse those storming a school there. In one instance, police were backed up by troops in armoured vehicles stationed at schools.
On January 31, young men armed with knives and clubs rampaged in Gassine and set government buildings alight. They intimiated local citizens in Gassine, after having assailed in Tunis a protest led by women on January 29. In Tunis, on Bourguiba Avenue the rampaging mobs were attacked by defiant shopkeepers who protected their homes and businesses with knives and clubs. Observers in Tunis suggested that the gangs were Ben Ali loyalists to create havoc. They did not appear to be protesters with political demands but were aiming to intimidate residents.
Ben Ali was once Tunisia's interior minister before he took power in 1987, and had a vast network of police, security forces and spies. There are reports that the network has not been dismantled since the revolution. Ben Ali's presidential guard has mostly been scattered or killed, but a small number of armed loyalists may remain inside the country.
The U.N. is calling for reforms to Tunisia's security forces. "The main sector that needs reform is the security forces that must begin to work for the people not against them," said Bacre Waly Ndiaye on February 1. He is leading an eight-member team sent to Tunisia by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
"The security system is at the heart of the reform process. There should be a limit placed on the police state."
Ndiaye told a news conference that 510 people had been wounded during the weeks of protests that began on December 17 and credited with inspiring the current uprising against the Mubarak government in Egypt.
Tunisia's interim government has promised to investigate any deaths and injuries that took place during the uprising and has begun to compensate the families affected.
It also promised to take back the assets held by Ben Ali and his family in Tunisia and abroad. For example, French authorities seized a small aircraft belonging Ben Ali's family at an airport near Paris, following an EU decision on January 31 to freeze assets belonging to Ben Ali and his wife. The former president and his family are known to have enjoyed a lavish lifestyle while in power, and also owned various hotels, banks, construction companies, newspapers and pharmaceutical firms.