x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Tunisia detains two of Ben Ali's associates as protests continue

Anti-government marches have continued in Tunis and other cities, with more than a thousand people demonstrating outside the prime minister¿s office yesterday.

TUNIS // A former Tunisian interior minister, Abdallah Kallel, and Abdel Aziz Ben Dhia, an adviser to the ousted president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, were detained yesterday, the latest members of his regime rounded up by a new government struggling to prove itself to Tunisians.

Both men were placed under house arrest, the state news agency said.

The interim coalition government created last weekend is tasked with organising new legislative and presidential elections within the next few months, but has faced opposition from protesters who want it purged of Mr Ben Ali's political machine, the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally party (RCD).

Prime minister Mohamed Ghannouchi has promised free elections and said that ministers in the interim government can be trusted. While some Tunisians support the government, protesters say that the RCD bears responsibility for the corruption and abuses that characterised Mr Ben Ali's 23-year rule.

Mr Ghannouchi announced, in an emotional television appearance on Friday, that he would retire from politics once new elections take place.

RCD members in the interim cabinet have left the party, and one minister from the RCD has resigned. Opposition members of government have argued that it would be unfeasible to sideline the vast party, which dominates both the cabinet and Tunisia's civil service.

Meanwhile, authorities have moved against Mr Ben Ali's leading cronies and the family of his wife, Leila Trabelsi, loathed by many Tunisians for their opulent lifestyle and widely accused of using corrupt means to get control of the country's major companies.

The government said last week that it had arrested 33 members of Mr Ben Ali's family but, so far, has named only Imed Trabelsi, a nephew of Leila Trabelsi. Last weekend authorities arrested Mr Ben Ali's security chief, Ali Seriati.

However, four opposition members of the government backed out of cabinet posts last week in a show of no confidence. Meanwhile, anti-government protests have continued in Tunis and other cities.

Yesterday more than a thousand people demonstrated outside the prime minister's office on a hill above Tunis's old city, where contingents of protesters from rural towns in the south have been arriving since Saturday by car and on foot.

"I want regular work, and I want dignity," said Mourad Ben Nahid, 34, a part-time mechanic from the town of Maknassy, exhausted after walking to Tunis with about 1,000 other men. "For 10 years I've been scraping to make a living, but there's not enough work and things are expensive."

Protesters were jammed into the courtyard outside the ministry, chanting slogans against the RCD. A few soldiers watched from along the ministry's outer walls, spray-painted with revolutionary graffiti; "Free at last," read the largest, in French.

While Tunisia's economy has grown in recent years and living standards in northern cities mirror those in western Europe, unemployment is high among young people and in the country's interior.

Protests over unemployment and corruption began in the rural town of Sidi Bouzid last month and accelerated into calls for Mr Ben Ali to step down. He fled the country on January 14, hours after thousands assembled in central Tunis to demand his immediate resignation.

The government has said that 78 people died in the unrest of the past month, as police opened fire on protesters in some towns. Authorities said the police used force only in self-defence and to protect lives and public property.

One of those bullets killed Nizar Slimi, 22, a jobless youth demonstrating this month in the town of Regueb, near Sidi Bouzid, said friends who arrived in Tunis yesterday morning after travelling overnight by foot and in cars.

"I was standing next to him when it happened," said Haitham Abid, 23, unfolding a photocopied picture of a man he said was Mr Slimi. "The electricity went out in the street, and then the police started shooting. Nizar was hit in the chest."

Mr Abid was reclined against a wall with around 20 other men from Regueb, eating tuna sandwiches provided by fellow protesters from Tunis.

"I want the RCD out of the government and out of politics," he said. "We'll stay here, sitting here like this, as long as it takes."

jthorne@thenational.ae