x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Protests continue as Tunisia names cabinet

Prisoners freed and curbs on political parties are ended as political enemies of former president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali are given cabinet posts.

Protesters and soldiers during a demonstration in the centre of Tunis yesterday. Tunisian security forces used water cannon and tear gas and fired shots in the air as demonstrators took to the streets demanding that the ruling party give up power.
Protesters and soldiers during a demonstration in the centre of Tunis yesterday. Tunisian security forces used water cannon and tear gas and fired shots in the air as demonstrators took to the streets demanding that the ruling party give up power.

TUNIS // Tunisia's new coalition government was named yesterday after weeks of protests that drove Zine el Abidine Ben Ali from power last week after a 23-year rule.

The ministers of defence, interior, finance and foreign affairs keep their jobs, but political enemies of Mr Ben Ali will also have cabinet posts. Now they must work together to organise new presidential elections.

The prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, remains head of the new government. It includes three opposition leaders, and the information ministry has been abolished.

Before the announcement, hundreds of Tunisians rallied in central Tunis to demand the abolition of Mr Ben Ali's ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally party (RCD).

Mr Ghannouchi said political prisoners would be released and restrictions on political parties would be ended.

Under the constitution, presidential and parliamentary elections should be held within two months, but the opposition says it could take up to six months to organise a genuinely democratic vote.

Yesterday the United States and the European Union both offered assistance with the elections. The EU "stands ready to provide immediate assistance to prepare and organise the electoral process", its foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said.

The two main stumbling blocks to smooth elections are public distrust of any government dominated by the RCD, and the economic problems that inspired the protests of the past two weeks.

A wave of demonstrations over unemployment and corruption was triggered when authorities in the rural town of Sidi Bouzid confiscated produce from a poor vegetable-seller, who set himself on fire in an act of desperation. By last week those protests had swelled to calls for Mr Ben Ali's immediate resignation.

The former president fled Tunisia last Friday and has taken refuge in Saudi Arabia with 1.5 tonnes of gold removed from Tunisia's central bank by his wife, Leila Trabelsi, it was reported yesterday.

Mr Ben Ali's abrupt departure has thrown Tunisia into political crisis and rapidly deteriorating security. Soldiers backed by tanks and army helicopters have deployed around the capital, amid looting and firefights with gunmen widely believed to be loyalists to Mr Ben Ali.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, sopeaking at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, said: "I urge all concerned parties to ensure an immediate end to the violence. The events in Tunisia highlight the need to address the underlying social and economic concerns of the population."

On Sunday police arrested Mr Ben Ali's security chief, Ali Seriati, who has been charged with threatening state security by inciting violence. That night, army special forces traded fire with members of Mr Ben Ali's security force near the presidential palace in Carthage, an upmarket suburb of Tunis.

Maintaining order "could set the stage for a decent political process", one western diplomat said. "But it's going to be very difficult if the security situation doesn't stabilise."

A degree of calm returned to central Tunis yesterday, with young boys playing football in alleys where a day before other older boys had stood guard with wooden staves. Opposite the interior ministry, a solitary cafe opened after three days behind shutters.

About 1,000 people gathered in Avenue Habib Bourguiba, where demonstrators called last Friday for Mr Ben Ali to step down, yesterday morning to demand that the remnants of his government also make way for fresh leadership.

"The ruling party is going to try to keep the big shots in place, and send the country back into cultural and economic disaster," said Kamel Akkari, an administrator with Tunisia's state mining company. "We have other competent people, here and in exile."

With cries of "RCD out!" the crowd increased, as riot police looked on and police riflemen scanned the rooftops. The day before, soldiers killed two snipers from Mr Ben Ali's security force who paralysed central Tunis for several hours.

By early afternoon authorities had decided that the protest had continued long enough. After firing warning shots and hosing down protesters with a water cannon, police sent them fleeing with a barrage of tear-gas canisters.

Meanwhile around a dozen men staged a short but noisy protest against the coalition government outside the headquarters of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), a coalition member.

The PDP said that demands to exclude the remnants of Mr Ben Ali's regime were unrealistic.

"The RCD has 2.5 million members," said Ahmed Bouazzi, a member of the PDP's executive committee. "For the state to continue functioning, we need to keep civil servants in place - and civil servants belong to the RCD."

It is also not clear whether Tunisia's ruling party is universally intent on continuing Mr Ben Ali's style of leadership, the western diplomat said.

"There are elites in the government more interested in business than in politics," he said. "Their vested interests would be with a stable government, and I'd argue that that would need to be a more representative government."

The PDP had nevertheless demanded key concessions and guarantees in return for joining with Mr Ben Ali's old party. The most pressing of these is that presidential elections be pushed back by several months from the 60 days dictated by Tunisia's constitution.

The party has argued that it and other opposition parties need more time to sell themselves to voters after years of harassment and sidelining by Mr Ben Ali's regime.

That argument makes sense to Mouaza Ayari, a telecommunications engineer queuing for bread in Tunis yesterday as bakeries reopened after a weekend of violence that paralysed food deliveries.

"I don't mind having the RCD in government for now," he said. "But I want to bring in more people from the opposition, and I need more than 60 days to get to know them."

The PDP also wants banned groups allowed into politics. That could see a revival of an Nahda, a moderate Islamist movement decimated by Mr Ben Ali during the 1990s with a campaign of mass arrests.

On Saturday an Nahda's leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, told Al Jazeera television that he intended to return to Tunisia "as soon as possible" after years of exile in the United Kingdom. Mr Bouazzi said his party supported the right of Islamists to enter Tunisian politics.

"And why not? We're a Muslim country," said Yassine Marzouki, a petrol company worker queuing behind Mr Ayari for bread in central Tunis yesterday. "I'll vote for the Islamists if they return, and then vote against them if they don't perform well. Everyone deserves at least a chance."


With additional reporting by Vesela Todorova in Abu Dhabi