x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Protests continue in Tunisia against ex-Ben Ali party

Demonstrators angry at continuing role of former president's allies in country's interim government.

TUNIS //Hundreds of Tunisians rallied against their new government today, 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," more than 1,000 protesters chanted in central Tunis, referring to former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who fled on Friday after 23 years of 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.

Some of them waved placards reading: "Down with the RCD!"

An opposition leader who has joined the government as regional development minister told AFP that the first cabinet meeting would be held tomorrow, though a government spokesman said the exact date was still up in the air.

An opposition source said the priorities at the cabinet meeting would be to draw up a national amnesty law for victims of the former regime, as well as concrete moves to break up the RCD's stranglehold on organs of state.

The authorities meanwhile eased the timing of 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.

The interim president, Foued Mebazaa, and the prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, yesterday quit the RCD, which has dominated Tunisian politics for decades.

But Mr 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," the independent daily said.

"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 yesterday, 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 the cabinet was announced.

In an apparent bid for political survival, the once all-powerful RCD also officially expelled Mr Ben Ali, who was forced to resign after a wave of protests in which dozens of people were killed.

The tumultuous events in Tunisia, dubbed the "Jasmine Revolution", have inspired dissident across the Arab world and sparked protests in various countries including Algeria, Jordan and Egypt.

Mr Ben Ali was the first Arab leader in recent history to quit after protests.

The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, called on Tunisia to hold "credible" elections to form a government backed by the whole nation, his spokesman said.

Yesterday, 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 Mr 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 Mr Ben Ali's fiercest critics, Moncef Marzouki, who has said he intends to run in the presidential election, also returned to Tunisia yesterday after years of exile in Paris, with emotional scenes at Tunis airport.