Thousands rally against Tunisia's new govt

AFP, Wednesday 19 Jan 2011

Continued presence of former ministers in the interim government provokes protests across Tunisia

A protester chants slogans as she holds a placard during a demonstration in downtown Tunis (Photo: Reuters)

Thousands of Tunisians rallied against the inclusion of old regime figures in their new government on Wednesday, as prosecutors launched an inquiry into the former president's financial assets.

"Ben Ali has gone to Saudi Arabia! The government should go there too," around 2,000 protesters chanted in central Tunis, referring to former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who fled on Friday after 23 years of iron-fisted rule.

"We want a new parliament, a new constitution, a new republic! People rise up against the Ben Ali loyalists!" they chanted at the peaceful demonstration.

Thousands more people rallied across central and southern Tunisia.

Prosecutors meanwhile opened a wide-reaching investigation into properties and foreign bank accounts held by Ben Ali and his extended family, as well as into their possible involvement in illegal transfers of money abroad.

The authorities also shortened a curfew in place for several days, saying the security situation had improved. But a state of emergency banning public assemblies remains and police have orders to shoot anyone running away.

Traffic was visibly heavier in Tunis and some shops and offices re-opened.

Interim president Foued Mebazaa and Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi on Tuesday quit Ben Ali's RCD party, which has dominated Tunisian politics for decades and has been one of the main drivers of public anger in the streets.

But Ghannouchi and seven other ministers from the previous government under Ben Ali held on to their posts including the interior and defence ministries.

"Let's not throw the baby out with the bath water," Tunisia's Le Quotidien daily commented in an editorial that emphasised the new national unity government was temporary and would prepare for democratic elections.

"The resentment is legitimate but it should not transform itself into a blind hatred that blocks the victorious march of the Tunisian people towards liberty," said the independent daily.

"The creation of a national unity government is the only path towards this final victory. The participation of the RCD in this government should not be a source of discord or a stumbling block," it said.

Thousands protested across Tunisia on Tuesday, with police firing tear gas in the centre of Tunis to disperse demonstrations as four ministers pulled out of the government in protest against the RCD just a day after it was announced.

In an apparent bid for political survival, the once all-powerful RCD officially expelled Ben Ali, who was forced from power last week following a wave of protests in which dozens of people were killed.

The tumultuous events in Tunisia -- dubbed the "Jasmin Revolution" -- have inspired dissidents across the Arab world and sparked protests in various countries including Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and Egypt.

Ben Ali was the first Arab leader in recent history to quit after protests.

Saudi Arabia on Wednesday stressed Ben Ali would not be allowed to engage in political activity while sheltering in the kingdom with family members.

On Tuesday, two new ministers and a junior minister from the UGTT -- a key player in the protests that ousted the old regime -- announced their withdrawal after the union refused to recognise the government.

The UGTT said Wednesday said it would not join a new government with "old regime" figures.

"We cannot take part in a government that includes symbols of the old regime," Abdessalem Jrad, secretary general of the UGTT labor union after a meeting with Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi.

The appointed health minister, FDLT leader Mustapha Ben Jaafar, who had yet to be sworn in, also said he would hold off on joining the government. Three opposition leaders including Ben Jaafar were appointed on Monday.

Tunisia's new leadership is due to hold parliamentary and presidential elections in the next six months, although no precise dates have been set. Under the constitution, elections should be held in less than two months.

The banned Islamist Ennahdha (Awakening) movement said it would seek to acquire legal status as a political party to take part in the elections.

One of Ben Ali's fiercest critics, Moncef Marzouki -- who has said he intends to run in the presidential election -- also returned to Tunisia on Tuesday after years of exile in Paris, amid emotional scenes at Tunis airport.

On Wednesday he visited the tomb of Mohammed Bouazizi -- the 26-year-old graduate forced to sell fruit and vegetables to make a living who set himself on fire last month to protest against the seizure of his stand by police.

His suicide prompted a wave of protest against Ben Ali's regime.

"I'm not here for politics. I'm here to pay homage to a region thanks to which Tunisia is acquiring its freedom. It's thanks to this region that I am here in Tunisia. It's my duty to come here," Marzouki said.

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