Tunisia unveils unity government amid massive protests

AFP, Monday 17 Jan 2011

The newly unveiled unity government promises unprecedented freedoms, despite remaining presence of ousted president's party members in key posts

Tunisia unrest
Photo: AFP

Tunisia unveiled  on Monday  a unity government Monday to prepare for elections, promising unprecedented freedoms and the release of political prisoners although the ousted president's party retained key posts.

The new authority also put a cost to weeks of turmoil that forced Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee Friday after 23 years in power, saying 78 people were killed and the economy had lost 1.6 billion euros (2.2 billion dollars).

Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi announced that he will remain as head of the transitional government, which will prepare for presidential and parliamentary elections within a maximum of six months.

His Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) also retained the key foreign, interior, defence and finance ministries, even after hundreds demanded in protests in Tunis and other cities Monday that the party be abolished.

The new government includes three leaders of the legal opposition as well as representatives of civil society, with a dissident blogger arrested under Ben Ali named as secretary of state for youth and sports.

It excludes banned political parties including the Communists and the Islamist Ennahdha, although Ghannouchi said that all political parties would be legalised and media freed.

Restrictions would also be lifted on non-governmental organisations including Tunisia's main human rights group, the Human Rights League, he said.
"We announce total freedom of information," Ghannouchi told reporters after announcing the cabinet. "We have decided to allow all associations to have normal activities without any interference on the part of the government."

Moncef Marzouki, a dissident living in Paris who has announced that he would stand for the presidency in the future polls, immediately branded the new government a "masquerade" still dominated by Ben Ali's supporters.
"Tunisia deserved much more," the secular leftist said.

"A unity government in name only because, in reality, it is made up of members of the party of dictatorship, the RCD," he said on France's I-Tele channel.
The Communist party, which is still banned in Tunisia, also slammed the new government saying it was the old regime in a new guise.

With Tunisia in chaos since Ben Ali's downfall -- which followed weeks of popular revolt in which security forces opened fire on protesters -- the UN chief Ban

Ki-moon called for the "prompt restoration" of rule of law.
Interior Minister Ahmed Friaa said 78 people were killed, several times higher than the last official figure of 21 dead issued on January 11, a few days before the president fled.

He also announced damage worth 1.6 million euros, equivalent to around four percent of Tunisia's 2010 gross domestic product, according to an AFP calculation based on International Monetary Fund economic data.

Friaa said two-thirds of the losses were due to the disruption of economic activity during protests and one-third was due to lost export revenues.

Economic activity has virtually ground to a halt in Tunisia, with many shops and banks still closed. Tourists -- a key source of revenue -- have fled.

Police fired tear gas and water cannons and shot live rounds in the air in the capital again earlier Monday to disperse hundreds of protesters demanding the abolishing of Ben Ali's party following heavy gunfire on Sunday.

"The revolution continues! RCD out!" they shouted. "Bread and water and no RCD!" hundreds more shouted in Sidi Bouzid, where a December 17 self-immolation suicide in an anti-government protest unleashed the movement that forced strongman Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia.

Ben Ali's ouster in what has been dubbed the Jasmine Revolution sent shockwaves around the Arab world as he became the first Arab leader in recent history to be forced out by street protests.

Fierce gun battles broke out Sunday in Tunis and near the presidential palace in nearby Carthage. There were also clashes near the interior ministry.
"The old regime is trying to sow panic in the population," said Mustapha Ben Ahmed, a trade unionist, as he walked along the central Avenue Bourguiba. "That bastard Ben Ali ran away and left the country to burn."

Swiss lawyer Ridha Ajmi on Monday filed a legal request to freeze any assets held by Ben Ali in Switzerland, and said he had also asked for international arrest warrants against the ex-president, his wife and former interior minister for allegedly ordering police to open fire on protestors.

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