Monday, January 17, 2011

Tunisia unity govt may not satisfy protesters

By BOUAZZA BEN BOUAZZA and ELAINE GANLEY, Associated Press Jan. 17, 2011

TUNIS, Tunisia – Tunisia's prime minister announced a national unity
government Monday, allowing opposition into the country's leadership for
the first time in a bid to quell civil unrest following the ouster of
President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali amid huge street protests.

However, at least one union leader said the changes were not enough and
predicted demonstrations would continue until all key figures in the old
regime had been swept from power.

Tunisia's government said more than 78 protesters and other civilians have
died in the protests, which have swept the country for a month. Interior
Minister Ahmed Friaa said 94 civilians have been injured. And he said
members of security forces also have been killed, but he did not say how

Although Ben Ali fled the country on Friday, after 23 years in power,
members of his government will play prominent roles in the new unity
government. Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, a longtime ally of Ben Ali,
and several top ministers have retained their posts.

Ghannouchi, who has been premier since 1999, said the current ministers of
defense, interior and foreign affairs would also keep their posts. He
announced as well that political prisoners would be freed, as one of an
array of measures aimed at loosening up a political system that for
decades was effectively under one-party rule.

But a critical question was whether the changes in the government lineup
would be enough to stabilize the North African country, which has been
reeling under from the unrest. Friaa told reporters Monday that 85 police
stations had been damaged, along with 13 town halls, 43 banks, 11
factories and 66 stores or shopping centers.

He said the country's economy the Tunisian economy lost 3 billion dinars
(US$2 billion) amid the troubles.

A union leader upset at the prospect of a government full of old guard
ministers, predicted growing demonstrations to press for an end to power
positions for the RCD — Ben Ali's political party.

"It (RCD) left by the back door and is coming back through the window,"
said Habib Jerjir, member of the executive bureau of the Regional Workers'
Union of Tunis. "We can't have militias in the streets and in the

Many opponents of Ben Ali's rule had taken to the streets to express their
hope the new government would not include of remnants of his iron-fisted

In addition to the holdovers, three opposition figures — including Nejib
Chebbi, a founder of the opposition PDP party — will take up posts in the

Until new presidential elections are held, the country is being run by
interim president Fouad Mebazaa, former speaker of the lower house of
parliament, also a veteran of Tunisia's ruling party.

Ghannouchi said all non-governmental associations that seek it would be
automatically recognized, and all the restrictions on the Tunisian League
for the Defense of Human Rights would be lifted.

Earlier Monday, security forces fired tear gas to repel angry
demonstrators. Later, a small, peaceful group of youths carried signs
reading "GET OUT" — marching under the gaze of police, some of hundreds of
security forces deployed in the capital.

Ghannouchi said the government would create three new state commissions to
study political reform, investigate corruption and bribery, and examine
abuses during the recent upheaval.

Ghannouchi didn't refer to the prospect of new elections, which under
Tunisia's constitution must be called within 60 days. But some members of
the opposition want more time, to allow the public to get know the choices
in a country known for one-party rule.

"The RCD still holds the power," said Hedi Guazaouni, 29. With the
potential for change after Ben Ali's flight from the country Friday, "This
is a chance not to be missed," he said.

Hylel Belhassen, a 51-year-old insurance salesman, summing up the concerns
of some, saying: "We're afraid that the president has left, but the
powers-that-be remain. We're afraid of being manipulated."

Demands for change were being made across sectors reined in by the Ben Ali
regime's grip.

Journalists at the nation's oldest state-run paper, La Presse, rose up in
revolt Monday and dismissed the editor-in-chief, Gawhar Chatty. The paper,
which daily featured front-page photos of Ben Ali or his wife, is now to
be run by a committee of journalists until a new direction is appointed.

They advised Chatty by phone that he was no longer welcome but he came to
work anyway. The noted cartoonist Lotfi Ben Sassi marched into his office.

"We can no longer allow you to continue with this editorial line," Lotfi
said, under the eye of an Associated Press Television News camera. "We are

Asked later if he restricted reporting, Chatty conceded, "Yes, it's clear.
Yes, there was censorship."

The European Union said Monday it stood ready to offer economic aid and
help Tunisia become a democracy.

Finance Minister Christine Lagarde of France — a former colonial overseer
of Tunisia — told French radio Monday that Paris is keeping a close watch
on the assets of Tunisians in French banks.

During a visit to neighboring Algeria on Monday, U.S. President Barack
Obama's top counterterrorism official, John Brennan, said the United
States was ready to help the Tunisian government in holding "free and fair
elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations"
of Tunisians.

Moncef Marzouki, a professor of medicine who leads the once-banned CPR
party from exile in France where he has lived for the last 20 years, told
France-Info radio he would be a candidate in the presidential election.

"The question is whether there will be or won't be free and fair
elections," said Marzouki, whose movement is of the secular left.

Whatever emerges, the new leadership will first face the challenge of
restoring order. Looting, gunbattles, and score-settling have roiled the
country since Friday, when a month of street protests against years of
repression, corruption and a lack of jobs brought down Ben Ali.

The family of a French photojournalist said Monday he had died after
having been hit in the face Friday with a tear gas canister. The French
Foreign Ministry said Loucas Von Zabiensky-Mebrouk, 32, was the "victim of
a deliberate homicidal act."

The victim, who often used the name Lucas Dolega, worked for the EPA photo

Shops in the center of Tunis remained shuttered Monday, and police were
deployed in force. A semblance of normal daily life returned in other
areas of the capital where shops, gas stations, pharmacies and
supermarkets reopened. Many people returned to their jobs and others
rushed to buy scarce stables like bread, fish and milk.

Hundreds of stranded tourists were still being evacuated from the country,
and foreign airlines gradually resumed the flights that were halted when
Tunisian airspace closed amid the upheaval.

Over the weekend, police arrested dozens of people, including the top
presidential security chief, as tensions appeared to mount between
Tunisians buoyant over Ben Ali's ouster and loyalists in danger of losing
many perks.

Ex-presidential security chief Ali Seriati and his deputy were charged
with a plot against state security, aggressive acts and for "provoking
disorder, murder and pillaging," the TAP state news agency reported.

Fierce gunbattles broke out between the two groups around the presidential
palace Sunday in Carthage on the Mediterranean shore, north of Tunis and
near the Interior Ministry in the capital.

The protests began last month after an educated but jobless 26-year-old
set himself on fire when police confiscated the fruits and vegetables he
was selling without a permit. His desperate act — from which he later died
— hit a nerve, sparked copycat suicides and focused anger against the
regime into a widespread revolt.

Reports of self-immollations surfaced in Egypt, Mauritania and Algeria on
Monday, in apparent imitation of the Tunisian events.

The downfall of the 74-year-old Ben Ali, who had taken power in a
bloodless coup in 1987, served as a warning to other autocratic leaders in
the Arab world. His Mediterranean nation, an ally in the U.S. fight
against terrorism and a popular tourist destination known for its wide
beaches, deserts and ancient ruins, had seemed more stable than many in
the region.


Associated Press Writer Raf Casert in Brussels, Hamza Hendawi in Cairo and
Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.

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