Tunisia government under pressure

Ministers quit party of deposed leader Ben Ali in bid to pacify critics as fresh unrest is reported in Tunis.

Many Tunisians are waiting for ‘fresh faces’ in the new government [EPA]

All of the eight ministers in Tunisia’s interim government who had been members of the RCD party of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the ousted president, have quit the party, but they still remain in their cabinet posts.

The move came on Thursday partly in response to the resignations of three members of cabinet who belonged to the main UGTT trade union.

Abdessalem Jrad, secretary-general of the UGTT, had made it clear that the group could not be part of a government “that includes symbols of the old regime”.

Ben Ali fled into exile in Saudi Arabia on January 14 amid a popular uprising.

The cabinet started its first session in the capital, Tunis, on Thursday, without the ministers who had pulled out

Meanwhile, the RCD announced that its central committee had been dissolved, as many committee members, who were also government ministers, had quit the party. The party itself would continue to operate, state television said.

In a new blow to the government, the minister of administrative development stepped down on Thursday.

“I am stepping down for the higher interests of the country in this delicate situation to try to bring the country out of crisis and ensure a democratic transition,” Zouheir M’Dhaffar, a prominent member of the former ruling party and one of the closest to Bin Ali, was quoted as saying by the official TAP news agency.

Protests continue

The developments come against a backdrop of continued protests against the new government, with many Tunisians angry that several members of the previous government were named in the “unity government” announced on Monday.

Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra reporting from outside the offices of the prime minister and the interim president in Tunis said that, “this government is being undermined by ongoing protests. We just heard some gunshots.

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“This is a strong signal to the government which is about to convene in two hours in a last attempt to put together a government, as otherwise Tunisia could descend into chaos.”

He said the government offices are bustling with activity as high-level officials try to convince members of the powerful workers’ unions to rejoin the cabinet.

“It will be the union’s presence that can win this government the public support that it needs,” our correspondent said.

“People are saying that it is not a revolt, but it is a revolution and therefore the outcome should be brand new faces.”

Earlier on Thursday, Al Jazeera’s Nazinine Moshiri said the situation on the streets of the Tunisian capital appeared to be improving.

“I have been out and about in the city this morning and it really does seem like a different city, bustling,” she said. “There is more food around, there are no long queues at the petrol stations.

“I spoke to one woman who said that she is very happy with the situation. She feels that calm has been restored.”

Referring to the decision by several ministers to quit the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), she said “the hope is that by resigning … they can find some sort of compromise”.

She said the first cabinet meeting has been delayed “as the president and prime minister are trying to get the union members to come back to join the government”.

‘Total break’

Earlier, Fouad Mebazaa, Tunisia’s interim president, promised a “total break” with the past and hailed “a revolution of dignity and liberty”.

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Hundreds of protesters led a rally in central Tunis on Wednesday, demanding that former allies of the deposed Ben Ali vacate ministerial positions. Later about 30 youths broke a curfew and set up a camp to stage a sit-in near the heavily guarded interior ministry.

Speaking on Tunisian state television – his first public appearance since being sworn into office – Mebazaa said there would be a complete separation between the state and political parties.

Rejecting the ways of the previous government, he said “together we can write a new page in the history of our country”.

Mebazaa also vowed to ensure an amnesty for political prisoners, media freedoms and an independent judiciary.

Release praised

Amnesty International, the London-based rights organisation, praised the release of political prisoners as a positive step, but said the former detainees should receive reparations.

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“The Tunisian authorities now need to show that they are really serious about ending the culture of human rights abuses that has existed for over two decades, and begin to rein in the security apparatus that has harassed and oppressed ordinary Tunisians for so long,” Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa programme, told the Reuters news agency.

Our correspondent said: “Human rights groups in Tunisia are telling us that there are still some political prisoners, mainly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, being held by the government under Tunisia’s anti-terrorism acts.”

The interim government has given legal status to three parties barred under the previous administration and freed a dissident journalist, Fahem Boukadous, who was sentenced to four years in prison last year for his work.

The new leadership is due to hold democratic parliamentary and presidential elections in the next six months, although no dates have been set.

Under the constitution, elections should take place in less than two months.

Assets inquiry

In another development, prosecutors have opened an inquiry into the affairs of Ben Ali, including investigations into his assets and the arrest of dozens of family members.

Tunisian investigators have said they will look into the extensive domestic and foreign assets held by Ben Ali.

The Swiss government earlier said it had frozen Ben Ali’s funds in Switzerland, as the country “wants to avoid our financial centre being used to hide funds illegally taken from the populations concerned,” Micheline Calmy-Rey, the country’s foreign minister, said.

Swiss authorities have estimated that Tunisian government officials have put about $620 million into Swiss banks.

The central bank has already taken over a bank owned by Ben Ali’s brother-in-law in the first such move against assets controlled by the former president’s influential family, which formed the core of Tunisia’s business elite.

Tunisian television reported that 33 members of the deposed leader’s family had been arrested on suspicion of “crimes against Tunisia”.

“Investigations will be carried out in order for them to face justice,” a statement read out on state television said, citing an “official source”.

It showed footage of gold and jewellery allegedly found in the possession of the arrested members of Ben Ali’s family.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies


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