Tunisians march calling on PM to quit

AFP , Sunday 23 Jan 2011

Tunisians march in protest and call for the prime minister's resignation

Protesters stand atop a police vehicle in front of the Prime Minister's office during a demonstration in downtown Tunis, 21 January 2011. (Reuters)

Anti-government protesters from rural central Tunisia marched through the capital Sunday, raising the pressure on Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi to quit in the wake of the ex-president's ouster.

"The people have come to bring down the government," the hundreds chanted as they marched through the centre of Tunis, waving flags and holding up pictures of some of the dozens of people killed by security forces during the uprising.

The new transitional government, put in place following president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's downfall on January 14, has unveiled unprecedented democratic freedoms but is still led by Ghannouchi and other old regime figures who have held on to key posts.

"We have come to bring down the rest of the dictatorship," said Mohammed Layani, an elderly man draped in a Tunisian flag. The protesters called their trip from impoverished central Tunisia a "Caravan of Liberation".

The march is being supported by the General Union of Tunisian Workers, known under its French acronym as UGTT, which played a key role in anti-Ben Ali protests and has refused to recognise the fledgling government.

Thousands took part in peaceful anti-government demonstrators in Tunis on Saturday and were joined by hundreds of police officers, some of whom briefly blocked a car carrying the country's interim president Foued Mebazaa.

Public assemblies of more than three people are officially banned under a state of emergency that remains in place, along with a night-time curfew.
The curfew has been eased and schools and universities, which have been shut since January 10, are expected to begin re-opening this week.

Ghannouchi has been prime minister in Tunisia since 1999 and has promised to quit politics after the north African state's first democratic elections since independence from france in 1956.

Mebazaa has promised a "total break" with Ben Ali's 23-year rule and the government has announced that political prisoners will be released, media censorship lifted and all political parties legalised.

Many Tunisians are already enjoying their new-found freedoms after the first popular revolt in the Arab world's recent history, which has inspired dissidents to protest in many other parts of the region.

"Free at last!" read a sign spray-painted on the central Avenue Bourguiba.

Regional observers are watching to see how far the ripples from Tunisia's "jasmine revolution" spread.

There have already been numerous cases of self-immolation in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Mauritania like the one that set off the Tunisian protests.

Meanwhile the banned Islamist movement Ennahdha has said it intends to register as an official political party and take part in elections.

Its exiled leader Rached Ghannouchi was quoted by German weekly Der Spiegel on Saturday saying he would return to his homeland "very soon".

The government on Saturday also lifted restrictions on the import of foreign literature and films, which were tightly controlled by the previous regime.

But many Tunisians say their revolution has not yet achieved its goals and are calling for the break-up of the powerful former ruling party.

The government has said elections will be held in six months but no dates have been set and under the constitution they should take place in two months.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meanwhile has called on the embattled Tunisian prime minister to carry out democratic reforms to stem the country's political turmoil, her spokesman said Saturday.

Clinton called Ghannouchi "to encourage ongoing reforms, and pledged support for transition to open democracy," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said in a message on the micro-blogging website Twitter.

Ben Ali resigned abruptly and fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14.

A Canadian government official told AFP on Saturday that one of Ben Ali's brothers-in-law had arrived in Canada on Friday, while Tunisian authorities said they have arrested 33 members of the family and frozen their assets.

Officials say 78 people were killed during weeks of protest and they have been hailed by Tunisia's imams as "martyrs of the revolution".

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