Tunisia battles loyalists of Ben Ali

Reuters, Monday 17 Jan 2011

Tunisia's military fought a heavy gun battle with members of the ousted president's security force on Sunday, and officials said helicopters were used to shoot gunmen on rooftops near the central bank

* Is this now a civil war? At times on Sunday, it felt like one. Military helicopters flew low over the centre of Tunis and the boom of large calibre gunfire echoed around the city for hours after night fell. Crucially though, it does not seem that the groups of gunmen clashing with the military have broad public support. The intensification of fighting on Sunday could mean one of two things. It could be that the Ben Ali loyalists are growing more confident. Or they could just be getting desperate. The lawlessness of the previous two days -- which some people believe was actively encouraged by Ben Ali's old security force -- has now subsided. The head of the force, Ali Seriati, is in jail. So they may have decided on a last throw of the dice by taking the fight to the military.

* So has the anarchy and looting stopped? No, but things are definitely stabilising. As the nightly curfew approached on Sunday afternoon, local people in Tunis were using refuse bins, tree branches, or anything that was to hand, to build barricades at the end of residential roads. Mainly because of these neighbourhood militias, Saturday night was the quietest for days. There are still problems. On the highway between Tunis and the suburb of Hammamet on Sunday afternoon, just a few kilometres from a military roadblock, a gang of youths was stopping cars and robbing the occupants.

* What about the political front? If the prime minister does indeed announce a government on Monday, that will have been achieved much quicker than most people expected. Two sources close to the negotiations said that three opposition leaders would have ministerial posts, and that the interior and foreign ministers from the old government would keep their posts.

* Does any of that matter when there are gunfights on the streets? Yes, it does. By keeping the political process moving forward, those involved will hope to deny momentum to Ben Ali's supporters. Delays or disagreements would be exploited by them to sow more instability. Having the opposition inside the government means one less headache. If opposition supporters took to the streets to protest at being excluded, the country's leaders might be fighting on more fronts than they could handle.

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