February 18, 2011 / 3:37 PM / in 7 years

Once-feared Tunisian ministry sets up Facebook page

TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia’s Interior Ministry, long feared as an instrument of repression, is hoping a new Facebook page will help it thaw relations with its citizens.

The move marks an about-face for the organization, which tried to stamp out social networking during the uprising last month that forced President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to step down and sent shockwaves through the Arab world.

“We want to create a new way to communicate with Tunisians, that provides total transparency and instant information,” a spokesman for the ministry told Reuters Friday.

“We’re very interested in the opinion of people on Facebook and we’re trying to listen to all Tunisians.”

North Africa’s smallest country was plunged into turmoil after one man’s self-immolation in a protest against authorities sparked a revolt that led Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia and encouraged a similar revolution in Egypt.

Ben Ali, who took power in 1987, was seen by many as an oppressive ruler who raided public funds. Elections to replace him are expected by July or August.

Days after being set up, the new Facebook site has more than 110,000 subscribers and contains thousands of posts ranging from requests for the dissolution of the political police to a suggestion not to let pushcart salesmen roam freely in the traffic-choked capital.

During the protests, in which dozens were killed, Tunisia’s government tried to shut down the social networking sites of activists, who used them to organize protests and transmit images of brutality by security forces.

“It is a very good sign to see them trying to be closer now, coming from a ministry whose very name we used to fear,” said 22-year-old student Majed Nasraoui. “But I worry that the ministry is controlling us again through this page.”

Tunisia’s caretaker government has pledged to support freedom of expression and uncensored access to the Internet -- moves that could help pave the way to improved trading terms with the European Union.

In the meantime, Tunisians are using the Interior Ministry’s Facebook site to air opinions they feared to utter a few weeks ago.

“Mr Minister, over the past month I have not seen a single police officer. Before that, there were ten beside me every day,” said one of the posts.

Editing by Richard Valdmanis

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