x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Tunisia minister reshuffle fails to stop clashes

Riot police fire tear-gas in the city's central boulevard and protesters threw stones in retaliation a day after a cabinet reshuffle.

TUNIS // Police in the Tunisian capital clashed with anti-government protestors late last night, a day after a cabinet reshuffle to replace political allies of the ousted president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

Riot police fired tear-gas in the city's central boulevard and protestors threw stones in retaliation. Shortly afterward, police used tear-gas and batons to disperse protestors camped outside the prime minister's office.

It was unclear how the clashes originated.

"They fired gas and warning shots in the air, and we threw stones at them," said protestor Houssine Lefi, 19, crouched in an alley after fleeing into Tunis's old medina.

The government has largely restored order since Mr Ben Ali's departure but has faced criticism from protesters who say that no government that includes members of his party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), is credible.

"This government is a transitional, interim government that will remain until it completes its mission of taking the country to democracy," said the interim prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, in a televised address late on Thursday to announce changes in the cabinet.

The crowds of protesters were thinning yesterday in the square in front of the prime minister's office, on a hill above the old medina in the capital. Most of the scores who remained were young men from rural cities, crowded into makeshift tents in what many say is a sit-in aimed at driving the RCD out of politics.

"True, the government has replaced ministers, but Ghannouchi remains," said Amer Ben Jellab, an unemployed man from the town of Ferian. "In my heart, I'm still not confident in the new government. But if Ghannouchi resigns, we'll be satisfied."

Like others among the protesters, Mr Ben Jellab, an Islamist, said he had a personal grievance against Mr Ben Ali's one-time allies: 12 years in prison under Tunisia's antiterrorism law for crimes he said he did not commit.

"Ben Ali was in power for 23 years," he said. "Now we need a radical change."

The government was formed two weeks ago after Mr Ben Ali fled Tunisia amid protests calling for him to stand down, and is tasked with preparing for new legislative and presidential elections in the coming months.

Police have clashed with anti-government protesters camped outside Mr Gannouchi's office in recent days, with police firing tear-gas canisters and some protesters throwing stones.

Mr Ghannouchi said that new cabinet members including the defence and interior ministers had been chosen for their experience and qualifications during consultations with political parties and civil society groups.

Crucially, the new cabinet has received the blessing of Tunisia's most powerful labour union, the Union Generale des Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT), which organised some of the protests that brought down Mr Ben Ali and subsequently helped lead calls for the RCD to get out of politics.

The interim president, Fouad Mebazaa, and Mr Ghannouchi, both members of the RCD, will keep their jobs. Mr Ghannouchi has pledged to retire from politics after elections have taken place.

"The interim government is made up of technocrats and should be able to carry out its task," said Hamadi Redissi, a politics professor at the University of Tunis. "What remains to be seen is how the people will react."

Mr Ghannouchi has promised free elections and a new constitution for Tunisia. Opposition members of the government have said that sidelining the RCD from politics is impractical, since the vast party dominates Tunisia's civil service.

While protesters have held the spotlight in Tunisia during the last two weeks, they represent only part of public opinion, said Mr Redissi.

With Tunisia on track for the first free elections in its history, "the government should be allowed to do its work", Mr Redissi said. "Otherwise, there's a risk of going back to something like the old regime".

jthorne@thenational.ae