x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Tunisia speeds to new future but violence steps up

Omnipresent posters of ex-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali were coming down all over Tunisia, a signal to citizens that the country is moving on after 23 years of autocratic rule.

TUNIS // Tunisia sped toward a new future after its lormer president fled, with an interim president sworn ordering the country's first multiparty government to be formed.

But snipers boldly attacked police beside the Interior Ministry, violence hit upmarket neighbourhoods and prisons alike and gunfire crackled steadily in the capital yesterday, heaping doubt on hopes for a smooth transition to a new era.

The omnipresent posters of ex-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali were coming down, a vivid signal to citizens that Tunisia is moving on after 23 years of autocratic rule. Even the main state TV station changed its name.

For Tunisians who protested for four weeks - with police shooting dozens to death - the announcement that a "government of national unity" would be formed opens the possibility of a leap toward democracy e.

The nation must wait 60 days to see whether the party that maintained the ex-leader in power gets an upper hand in the new government.

The 74-year-old Mr Ben Ali fled his country on Friday for Saudi Arabia, literally chased out by angry legions of citizens protesting  at joblessness and what they said was corruption and lack of freedoms Numerous citizens laid a large measure of blame for his fate on his in-laws, supremely wealthy and considered just as corrupt.

The interim president, Fouad Mebazaa, the former president of the lower house of parliament, was named yesterday, the second change of power in fewer than 24 hours. He quickly ordered the creation of a unity government that by its nature would include the opposition which had been frozen out under Ben Ali.

Nejib Chebbi, a founder of the main opposition party, the Progressive Democratic Party, said: "We can start to hope,." The question now, he said, is whether a new government will be pluralistic or again dominated by Ben Ali's ruling RCD party. "If the RCD is dominant, we're not out of the woods."

Tunis airport reopened Saturday but the state of emergency declared Thursday continued. Instability ruled in the streets and spotter helicopters churned in the sky above the capital.

Fire blackened the main Tunis train station, torched along with large stores and scattered shops as troublemakers defied a curfew on Friday night.

At least 42 people were killed Saturday in a prison fire in a resort town and the director of another prison let 1,000 inmates flee after a deadly rebellion.

Assailants fired on police guarding the Interior Ministry in a bold attack on the symbol of the Ben Ali reign and police returned fire, battening down the city centre An Associated Press Television News cameraman near the scene saw two bodies on the ground. Their identities were not known.

Street violence took a new form yesterday with marauding gangs sacking homes in at least one wealthy neighborhood and residents, armed with golf clubs, forming self-styled vigilante committees to protect themselves.

Rumors were rife in a chaotic Tunisia, with some citizens voicing suspicions the gangs were made up of Ben Ali loyalists bent on sewing chaos in the country.

Many Tunisians also expressed worries about what lies ahead.

"This all happened in three days. Maybe tomorrow we can't eat," said Mohsen Yacoubi, referring to the mostly closed shops in the capital. He said Mr Ben Ali's departure should have been negotiated over time. "Instead, it's war right away."

Soldiers took up posts around Tunis, with tanks guarding strategic facilities like ministries and some major crossroads. The army presence was clear but discreet. Police were everywhere.

Two quick changes in leadership since Ben Ali bowed out fed rumours that the army was the shadow ruler in a country without a government.

The country's longtime prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, a Ben Ali ally, stepped stepped in briefly on Friday to assume power after Mr Ben Ali fled, leaving open the possibility that the longtime leader could return. But oyesterday the president of the constitutional council President Fethi Abdennadher declared the president's departure permanent and gave lawmaker Mebazaa 60 days in which to organize new elections.

Hours later, Mr Mebazaa, 77, was sworn in and announced that all parties will be consulted "without exception or exclusion."

"Ben Ali was a military dictator and everyone knows it," said Nouredine Jouini, 56, a former mechanical designer now guarding a closed up mall on Tunis' main avenue. But, he added, "The people aren't dumb. We know the prime minister was appointed by defence forces. But it won't stay this way. Tunisia will function."

Streets were flush with police, for decades the most visible  force in Tunisia. Cars were checked, particularly rental cars considered suspect as gangs combed the city.

In the idyllic coastal resort of Monastir, a prison fire killed 42 people, coroner Tarek Mghirbi told the Associated Press yesterday. The cause of the fire was not immediately clear. In Mahdia, a resort town further down the coast, inmates were set free after a rebellion by prisoners who set fire to the facility holding some 1,000. Soldiers opened fire and five inmates were killed, a top local official said, asking not to be identified because of security concerns.

A Paris-based photographer, Lucas Mebrouk Dolega of the EPA photo agency, was in a critical condition today after being hit in the face by a tear gas canister.

An Associated Press photographer saw soldiers fire warning shots and try to stop looters from sacking the supermarket in Ariana, north of the capital, to no avail. Shops near the Tunis bazaar were also looted.

Public television station TV7 - just renamed Tunisian National Television - broadcast phone calls from residents of working-class neighborhoods on the capital's outskirts, describing attacks against their homes by knife-wielding assailants. Young boys were seen armed with long sticks along some streets.

The wealthy were not spared, with some homes sacked in the upper class La Marsa neighbourhood.

Tunisian television has urged citizens to organize patrols, and men and boys in the up-market Tunis neighborhood of El Menzah set up makeshift barricades and armed themselves with golf clubs and baseball bats for patrols against intruders.

Businesses owned by member's of Mr Ben Ali's family also appeared to be targets. The family of the ex-president's wife, Leila Trabelsi, has financial interests in wide-ranging sectors from banking to car dealerships. A branch of the Zeitouna bank in Tunis founded by Mr Ben Ali's son-in-law was torched, as were vehicles made by Kia, Fiat and Porsche, brands distributed in Tunisia by members of the ruling family.

Lilia Ben Romdhan, a mother of three in central Tunis, said: "This isn't good at all. I'm very afraid for the kids and myself. If (Ben Ali) had stayed in the country it would be better."

In Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah's palace ended hours of speculation about where Mr Ben Ali had fled to, confirming yesterday that the ousted president and some family members had landed in the country. The palace said the kingdom welcomed him with a wish for "peace and security to return to the people of Tunisia."

A source inside the kingdom said he was in the small city of Abha, about 500 kilometres south of Jeddah - taken there to avoid sparking any possible demonstrations by Tunisians living in the larger, seaside city of Jeddah.

The whereabouts of all family members were unclear.

The French government said some members are in France - former colonial ruler - but are "not welcome." Spokesman Francois Baroin told France-Info radio that Mr Ben Ali's family "have not shown a desire to stay on French soil and are going to leave."

Thousands of tourists were being evacuated from the Mediterranean nation, where tourism is a chief industry.

Mr Ben Ali snatched power from the nation's founder, President Habib Bourguiba, in a bloodless palace coup in 1987. However, the improved quality of life for many failed to keep up with the increased limits on civil rights like freedom of expression. The unemployment rate stands officially at 14 per cent but is thought to be far higher among the young - who make up 52 percent of Tunisia's 10 million inhabitants.

The self-immolation, and eventual death, of a 26-year-old university graduate selling fruits in central Tunisia triggered a dizzying series of riots that moved to the capital and, relayed by social media like Facebook, spun into general anger over the regime.