Tunisians rally as country awaits new cabinet

AFP , Thursday 27 Jan 2011

Thousands of Tunisians took to the streets in several cities demanding the resignation of the interim government

Tunisians rallied for a fifth day outside the prime minister's offices in Tunis on Thursday, as the interim cabinet prepared a crucial shake-up in response to calls for a clean break with the old regime.

Thousands also took to the streets of Sidi Bouzid, an impoverished rural town in central Tunisia where demonstrations against president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's 23-year regime began last month and grew into a national uprising.

"No to the theft of the revolution! Yes to the resignation of the government!" chanted the protesters, some of whom waved Tunisian flags, as the town held a general strike in a bid to up pressure on the country's leadership.

Tunisia's main trade union, the UGTT, which played an instrumental role in the movement against Ben Ali, has refused to recognize the caretaker government put in place in the wake of the president's ouster on January 14.

UGTT officials said they were meeting on Thursday to take a "final decision" on whether or not to accept the government, which is preparing the country's first democratic elections but has been clouded by controversy.

The ripples of the Arab world's first popular revolt in recent history have been felt across the region, where difficult social and economic conditions have created widespread popular discontent against veteran regimes.

Thousands of Yemenis demonstrated in the capital on Thursday, calling on President Ali Abdullah Saleh to go. He has been in power since 1978.

The United States has said much of the Arab world shares the same problems that helped set off the events in Tunisia and has called for governments in the region to heed the "democratic aspirations" of their people.

Tunisia's government has moved quickly to grant unprecedented democratic freedoms, including lifting strict controls on the media, releasing political prisoners and legalizing previously banned political parties.

It has also issued an international arrest warrant for Ben Ali and members of his once all-powerful family, which has been relayed by Interpol, on charges of illegal transfers of funds broad and illicit acquisition of assets.

Ben Ali has sought refuge in Saudi Arabia, which says he can stay as long as he does not engage in any political activity. Thirty-three family members have been arrested in Tunisia and others have scattered across the globe.

The UGTT, the General Union of Tunisian Workers, meanwhile has mobilized thousands of protesters to get key figures associated with the old regime to quit and has called for a new revolutionary council to oversee the government.

The council is planned to include a variety of government, opposition and civil society figures. A representative of the group would take part in cabinet meetings as an observer, the UGTT said in a statement.

On Wednesday the UGTT organized a general strike in Tunisia's second biggest city, Sfax, in which tens of thousands of people took part. It is planning another on Friday in Ben Arous, an industrial area south of the capital.

The government of Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, who has been in his post since 1999, has struggled to restore order since it took power last week.

It has eased a curfew put in place under Ben Ali to clamp down on protests and has ordered the country's schools and universities to re-open, although many of them have remained shut because of strike action by teachers.

The cabinet has also been locked in tense negotiations this week over a reshuffle that sources close to the government told AFP could replace the defence, foreign and interior ministers -- a key source of public discontent.

The army, which has deployed around the country but kept a low political profile, has urged a return to calm and warned against the creation of a "power vacuum" that could lead to dictatorship in the north African state.

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