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TUNISIA: Actors, artists take to the stage to speak out against government

January 13, 2011 |  6:16 am

As security forces and tanks streamed into the center of the Tunisian capital on Wednesday to try to put down mounting anti-government protests that have left scores dead, a group of about 50 Tunisian actors and artists gathered in a theater in Tunis to speak out peacefully, through plays and songs, about the dramatic events that have rocked their country to the core.

"The republic is in a coma," one actor cried out on stage in a play about the violent riots and police crackdowns on protesters that occurred in recent weeks.

When people in the audience were told that Tunisia's interior minister (who was fired Wednesday) had made public apologies about previous crackdowns on outspoken artists and actors, they angrily responded by shouting, "It's too late."

The gathering, held at Tunisia's independent El Teatro theater, served as an opportunity for many to vent their feelings about the demonstrations that have kept the streets of Tunisia tense for weeks and the government's response to the riots.

Many of those who attended were upset and angry and wondered how the situation in the country would develop.

"Today shows explosions of rage and frustration," El Teatro director Zeinab Farhat told Babylon & Beyond. "I'm proud to see young Tunisians refusing corruption and and this soporific state."

Criticizing the government and its policies in public is not commonplace in this north African country where President Zine el Abidine ben Ali's administration tightly controls freedom of expression and suppresses political dissident. 

On Tuesday, a group of about 15 actors gathered in front of another local theater in Tunis to hold an anti-government flash mob. Soon after they gathered, security forces arrived to disperse them using tear gas and batons. One protester said he was thrown into a nearby shop window by the police in the turmoil, breaking a hand and a leg.

Censors are putting substantial effort into stopping the information flow about the recent unrest in Tunisia. Facebook  pages criticizing the government reportedly were taken down last week, and some bloggers and journalists covering the protests complain that their accounts on social-networking sites have been hacked.

So there was careful optimism after Wednesday's public display of dissent that the status quo might be changing.

"It's new that artists talk freely," 26-year old Tunisian musician Ben Dir Man told Babylon & Beyond at the event. "The way people want to change the country is a historical turn for Tunisia."

-- A special correspondent in Tunis and Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photo: Tunisian actors and artists gathered at a local theater in Tunis on Wednesday to speak out about the violence their country has witnessed in recent weeks. Credit: Special to the Los Angeles Times