Army tries to maintain order amid chaotic scenes following ouster of president.
Tunisian authorities are struggling to restore order and stop surging violence while politicians seek to cobble together a unity government, in the wake of the toppling of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s government.
Tunisia’s prime minister promised to announce a new coalition government on Monday, hoping to maintain the momentum of political progress to ward off fresh protests and also undercut gunmen loyal to the ousted president.
Prime minister Mohamed Ghannouchi promised rapid action to fill the power vacuum.
“Tomorrow we will announce the new government which will open a new page in the history of Tunisia,” he said in a brief statement on Sunday.
Al Jazeera has learnt that the Democratic Progressive Party and the Democratic Forum for Labour and Freedoms will have one minister each in the proposed coalition. While the technocrats in the current government are likely to retain their posts, representatives from trade unions and lawyers’ groups are also expected to find cabinet berths.
“We know the incoming national unity government will have three members of the opposition. It will include some technocrats, independents and economists and some figures from Tunisian labour and trade unions. Some of those have still to be determined,” Ayman Mohyeldin, Al Jazeera’s correspondent reported from the Tunisian capital.
“There are some unconfirmed reports that the current interior minister and foreign minister will stay in their positions and that obviously is already drawing some criticism here, with some of the pundits at least criticising the incoming national unity government for not being broad enough in its scope to reflect the political aspirations of the Tunisian people.”
Ben Ali, who had been in power since 1987, fled to Saudi Arabia on Friday following mass protests against his government.
Fouad Mebezaa, the speaker of parliament, was sworn in as the country’s interim president on Saturday and promised to create a unity government that could include the long-ignored opposition.
Continuation of violence
A gun battle erupted on Sunday around the presidential palace in Carthage on the Mediterranean shore, while in the capital, Tunis, at least two major firefights broke out – one close to the central bank building, the other near the headquarters of the main opposition party, the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP).
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In a statement, the PDP said that police and military stopped a car carrying armed men, who it described as foreigners, after which shots were fired.
Separately, security forces killed two armed men stationed on a rooftop near the central bank, a state TV reporter said from the scene.
A military official told the TV station that the men were killed by fire from a helicopter.
Presidential guards loyal to Ben Ali were involved in the shootout in Carthage, about 15km north of Tunis, according to two residents.
The clashes broke out in the afternoon and were marked by sporadic but heavy gunfire, forcing local residents to barricade themselves inside their homes.
Al Jazeera’s Mohyeldin, reporting from Tunis, said that there had been a “volley of gunfire” exchanged between “unidentifiable” parties, but that the shooting seemed to have died down later in the evening.
Reuters reported, quoting a military source who did not want to be identified, that people loyal to the arrested head of Ben Ali’s security force had opened fire as they passed near the front of the presidential palace.
“Special military groups came out [from the palace] to pursue them and they started to exchange fire,” the source said.
Distrust of police
Al Jazeera’s James Bays, reporting from Tunis on Sunday, said even though army roadblocks had sprung up throughout the city, people were saying they needed to arm themselves against the police, who they did not trust.
“In between the roadblocks, we were coming across large groups of people who had their own home-made weapons, axes and steel bars, and some of them were not particularly friendly to us when we wanted to film in the area,” he said.
Bays said the situation in Tunis was “pretty volatile” even for ordinary people.
“We were filming the hardships of the ordinary people of the city – a bread queue … and then members of the crowd turned on us and said ‘it was shameful for you to film us in this situation, begging for bread’,” he said, adding that the TV crew just managed to escape the large, angry crowd.
He said the army was rounding up those loyal to Ben Ali, including members of the presidential police.
In the most prominent arrest, Tunisia’s former interior minister, the man many held responsible for a police crackdown on anti-government protesters, was held in his home town in the north of the country.
Rafik Belhaj, who was the most senior official in charge of the police force, was arrested in Beja on Sunday afternoon.
Belhaj had been dismissed from his position on Wednesday in one of Ben Ali’s final efforts to placate public anger with his leadership.
Separately, Tunisian state television announced that Ali Seryati, the former head of Ben Ali’s security service, would appear in court to face charges of threatening national security and provoking armed violence.
Al Jazeera has learnt that a replacement had been appointed.
In another development, the AFP news agency reported that a member of Ben Ali’s extended family had died of a knife wound two days earlier.
Imed Trabelsi, a nephew of Ben Ali’s wife, died in a military hospital in Tunis, a staff member told the AFP.
He was the first person in the deposed leader’s extended family reported to have died as a result of the uprising.
Trabelsi was an influential businessman and became more widely known after he was mentioned in a US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks that said he was reported to have stolen a yacht belonging to the chairman of the powerful French financial firm, Lazard.
Salim Shayboub, Ben Ali’s son-in-law, also reportedly has been arrested.
On Saturday, looters emptied shops and torched the main train station and soldiers traded fire with unidentified armed men in front of the interior ministry.
Some rioters appeared to be targeting businesses owned by members of Ben Ali’s family.
In Tunis, a branch of the Zeitouna bank founded by 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.
Public television station TV7 broadcast phone calls from residents on Tunis’s outskirts, describing attacks by knife-wielding assailants.
Amid the turmoil, many Tunisians have organised themselves to protect their neighbourhoods, Amine Ghali, a democracy advocate in Tunisia, told Al Jazeera.
“There is a serious security issue, but people are getting organised. They are standing in front of their neighbourhoods, forming neighbourhood committees … they are trying to be as calm as possible and trying to help the military,” he said.
Residents of some Tunis neighbourhoods set up barricades and organised overnight patrols to deter rioters.
“If the interim government doesn’t quickly implement measures to reduce the level of unemployment and increase standards of living, we are going to see more of these protests,” Ayesha Sabavala, deputy editor of the Economist Intelligence Unit, told Al Jazeera.