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Tunisia's new regime in danger of collapse as ministers quit

Four ministers walk out of cabinet, and more protests fill the streets of the capital as Tunisians refuse to be governed by politicians linked to ousted president Ben Ali.

TUNIS // Tunisa's new government was in danger of collapsing last night, only a day after it was formed.

Four opposition ministers walked out of the cabinet as hundreds of demonstrators protested at its domination by political allies of the ousted president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

Mr Ben Ali fled the country last Friday after a wave of protests over unemployment and corruption. The prime minister Mohamed Ghannouchi formed a coalition with three opposition parties and the country's largest trade union, the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT).

The UGTT is not a political party but helped to organise the protests that drove Mr Ben Ali from power, and contributed three ministers to the new government.

Yesterday the union withdrew all three: the junior minister for transport and equipment, Anouar Ben Gueddour, the labour minister, Houssine Dimassi, and minister without portfolio Abdeljelil Bedoui. The health minister, Mustapha Ben Jaafar, from the Democratic Forum for Work and Liberties, also resigned,

The UGTT's deputy secretary-general, Abid Briki, said the union objected to the inclusion of ministers from Mr Ben Ali's government.

"We need something that reflects the desire of the people," Mr Briki said. "We're calling on Mr Ghannouchi to re-open negotiations with all components of civil society."

The resignations cast doubt on the new government's ability to quell the unrest that has gripped the country and prepare for presidential and legislative elections, amid widespread distrust of Mr Ben Ali's old guard.

"The government is just window-dressing," said Hadi Ben Mohamed, a high-school philosophy teacher protesting at the new cabinet yesterday outside the UGTT headquarters in central Tunis. "What we really need is to start from zero with a new constitution."

Near by, police used batons and tear gas to drive off hundreds of protesters massed in the city's main promenade, where last Friday thousands gathered to demand Mr Ben Ali's departure.

Mr Ghannouchi has pledged to free political prisoners and says the government will investigate corruption and the unrest of the past month.

In a radio interview yesterday he called on Tunisians to "give us a chance so that we can put in place this ambitious programme of reform".

For some, that appeal is too little, too late. In recent days protesters who helped to oust Mr Ben Ali have turned their anger on his political machine, the Constitutional Democratic Rally party (RCD), which helped to keep him in power for 23 years.

Opposition members of the government have argued that sidelining Mr Ben Ali's vast party would be unrealistic. But popular anger may be nudging them to backtrack, the latest step in a dance between politicians and the Tunisian street.

"The people are driving things," one western diplomat said. "The trade unions and political parties have been trying to play catch-up."

"This revolution is popular," said Lotfi Mrabbet, 33, an unemployed university graduate protesting yesterday with Mr Ben Mohamed and about a hundred other people.

The crowd alternately sang Tunisia's national anthem and chanted "RCD, Out! Out!" in English.

"Look around you - the people want to tear out the roots of the old regime and build a new republic," Mr Mrabbet said.

Meanwhile the military has emerged as a source of reassurance to many Tunisians as soldiers and tanks have deployed around Tunis to contain a rapid deterioration in security.

The city and its suburbs were gripped by violence over the weekend as looters ransacked shops in defiance of a curfew and the army traded fire with members of Mr Ben Ali's security force.

Thousands of tourists have fled Tunisia and yesterday the German tour operator TUI AG said it was cancelling all flights to the country until February 15

"We need government to continue functioning so it can focus on the economy," said Roger Bismuth, a businessman and senator from the RCD. "The country is facing a difficult situation, and unemployment is going to grow."

Protests began last month after authorities in the rural town of Sidi Bouzid confiscated produce from an impoverished vegetable seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, who in desperation set himself on fire outside the regional governor's office.

Mr Bouazizi's suicide triggered a wave of peaceful protests and sometimes deadly clashes between protesters and police that led to Mr Ben Ali's abrupt departure last week.

jthorne@thenational.ae

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