Tunisians want new republic

2011-01-19 21:03

Tunis - Thousands of Tunisians rallied against their new government on Wednesday, as the leadership tried to defuse public anger over the continued power of the former ruling party and four ministers pulled out.

"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 rallied across central and southern Tunisia in Ben Guedane, Kasserine, Regueb and Sidi Bouzid - the city where protests against the regime began last month after a young vendor set himself on fire in a protest.

At the rally in Ben Guedane, some protesters carried coffins in a symbolic funeral for the RCD - Ben Ali's widely hated and once all-powerful party, which continues to have a stranglehold on the main state institutions.

The authorities meanwhile shortened a curfew that has been in place for days, saying the security situation had improved, but a state of emergency that bans any public assemblies remained in place.

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

Old hands hang on

Interim president Foued Mebazaa and Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi on Tuesday quit the RCD, which has dominated Tunisian politics for decades.

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.

Jasmine Revolution

The tumultuous events in Tunisia - dubbed the "Jasmine 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 said Ben Ali would not be allowed to engage in political activity while sheltering in the kingdom. He fled to the Red Sea city of Jeddah along with six members of his family and has made no public statements.

The United States has welcomed reforms announced by the new government, including media freedoms and the release of all political prisoners, but has said political change must broaden and deepen.

"Clearly the government has to take steps to meet the aspirations of the Tunisian people... The interim government is moving in that direction," State Department spokesperson Philip Crowley told reporters on Tuesday.

"We want to see an open process, significant dialogue between the government and significant groups that want to play a role in Tunisia's future," he added.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on Tunisia to hold "credible" elections to form a government backed by the whole nation.

Unions object

On Tuesday, two new ministers and a junior minister from Tunisia's main trade union - a key player in the protests - announced their withdrawal after the union refused to recognise the government.

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.