x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Tunisia's new coalition in trouble amid more protests

Three ministers quit today and an opposition party threatened to walk out over the continued presence in the government f members of the party of the ousted president, Zine al Abidine Ben Ali.

TUNIS // Tunisia's new coalition government hit trouble today, with three ministers quitting and an opposition party threatening to walk out in protest at the presence of members of the party of the ousted president.

Prime minister Mohamed Ghannouchi brought opposition leaders into the coalition on Monday after the country's president, Zine al Abidine Ben Ali, fled to Saudi Arabia following weeks of street protests. But key figures from the old guard kept their jobs, angering many.

The Tunisian opposition party Ettajdid threatened to pull its leader out of the coalition government if ministers from the party of former leader Zine al Abidine Ben Ali do not give up party membership, state TV said today.

A statement from Ettajdid, read out by Tunisian television, said the ministers must also return to the state all property they obtained through the RCD, Ben Ali's political party and power base for the 23 years of his rule.

Police in Tunis repeatedly used teargas in an attempt to break up a protest by several hundred opposition party supporters and trade unionists who labelled the new government a "sham". Protesters would scatter, but then regroup to continue.

Several hundred people also protested against the new government in Monastir, south of Tunis.

Abid al Briki of the Tunisian labour union UGTT said its three ministers would withdraw from the government because it included members of Ben Ali's RCD party.

"This is in response to the demands of people on the streets," Briki said.

Mr Ghannouchi defended his government, saying some ministers had been kept on because they were needed in the run-up to elections, expected in the next two months.

"We have tried to put together a mix that takes into account the different forces in the country to create the conditions to be able to start reforms," Mr Ghannouchi told Europe 1 radio.

He rejected suggestions that the Ben Ali "dictatorship" would continue under a new guise.

His foreign minister, Kamel Morjane, said during a visit to Egypt that the interim government would respond to issues that had angered protesters, such as corruption, and would be preparing for new elections. "It may be possible that the next government will not have any member of the former government," he said.

The opposition leader Moncef Marzouki arrived at Tunis airport today to be met by 200 cheering supporters.

Mr Marzouki, who went into exile after being harassed by Ben Ali's intelligence services, said: "The revolution must continue."  Women kissed him, and a group of male supporters gave him a Tunisian flag and lifted him on to their shoulders.

"Today is a day of great victory because I can be in a free country," Marzouki said. "There is a feeling of national pride ... It is a great joy to see that the big mafia that ruled this country and was supported by certain people, is now fleeing, while now I, who had to flee, who was a fugitive, am welcomed by my people."

He said the first thing he would do was travel to the town of Sidi Bouzid, about 300 km (185 miles) southwest of Tunis, to visit the grave of Mohamed Bouazizi.

A young unemployed man, Bouazizi set himself on fire -- and later died -- in protest at his treatment by the authorities, an act that began the wave of protests which forced Mr Ben Ali out

The weeks of protests against poverty and unemployment in Tunisia which forced Mr Ben Ali from office prompted fears across the Arab world that similarly repressive governments might also face popular unrest.

In Tunis today, people in several parts of the city reported hearing sporadic gunfire overnight but there was significantly less gunfire than on previous nights.

A Reuters photographer in the Ariana suburb of Tunis said local people were organising neighbourhood groups to clean up the damage left by several days of lawlessness.

The government says at least 78 people were killed in the unrest, and the cost in damage and lost business was US$2 billion.

Ghannouchi promised to release all political prisoners and to investigate those suspected of corruption Those behind the killing of demonstrators would face justice.

The wave of protests has hit stock and currency markets from Jordan to Morocco amid fears that the Tunisian unrest would spread abroad.

The prime minister said the ministers of defence, interior, finance and foreign affairs under Ben Ali would keep their jobs in the new government.

Among opposition figures, Najib Chebbi, founder of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), was named minister of regional development, Ettajdid party leader Ahmed Ibrahim higher education minister and Mustafa Ben Jaafar, head of the Union of Freedom and Labour, health minister.