Tunisia may purge Ben Ali loyalists

Thursday’s cabinet reshuffle likely to see loyalists of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the ousted president, being replaced.

Tunisia protests
Tunisia is seeking international arrest warrant to bring Ben Ali and his family members to justice [GALLO/GETTY]

Tunisians have rallied for a fifth day outside the prime minister’s offices in Tunis as the interim cabinet prepared for a crucial shake-up in response to calls for a clean break with the old regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the ousted president.

Thousands also took to the streets of Sidi Bouzid, an impoverished rural town in central Tunisia where mass protests that led to Ben Ali’s ouster, first erupted.

“No to the theft of the revolution! Yes to the resignation of the government!” chanted the protesters on Thursday. Some of them waved Tunisian flags as the town held a general strike in a bid to mount pressure on the country’s current leadership.

Loyalists of the former president who have continued as interior, defence and foreign ministers, are likely to be replaced in Thursday’s shake-up.

The move comes almost two weeks after Ben Ali fled into exile, seeking refuge in Saudi Arabia after weeks of violent protests against poverty, repression and corruption toppled him after 23 years in power.

Since then, an interim government that includes many former ruling party officials, has struggled to impose order.

Arrest warrant

Tunisia says it is seeking an international arrest warrant to bring Ben Ali, his wife and other family members to justice for theft and currency offences during his rule, when those surrounding the president grew wealthy.

Follow Al Jazeera’s complete coverage 

“We are asking Interpol to find all those who fled, including the president and this woman (his wife), for trial in Tunisia,” Lazhar Karoui Chebbi, the justice minister, said.

Ben Ali was also being charged with illegally acquiring real estate and other assets abroad, the justice minister said.

Tunisia has frozen huge assets held by the family and France and Switzerland have said they will also block any Ben Ali holdings in their countries.

The justice minister also said the head of Ben Ali’s presidential guard and five others were being investigated for violence following his ouster.

Ben Ali, his wife and their clan have been widely accused of abusing their power to enrich themselves. In France, where family members are believed to have assets ranging from apartments to racehorses, prosecutors have opened a preliminary investigation into their holdings.

French media has reported that Ben Ali’s wife left the country with millions in gold, but Mustapha Kamel Nabli, Tunisia’s new central bank governor, says no gold was taken from the bank’s vaults during the final days of Ben Ali’s regime.

The US state department declined to take a position on the arrest alert. “This is a matter for Tunisian authorities,” said Philip Crowley, state department spokesman.

Curfew relaxed

Clashes broke out on Wednesday near government offices in the old city. Riot police fired tear gas at hundreds of protesters, mainly teenagers and young men, who threw stones.

Despite the clashes, the interim government announced it would reduce the curfew, in place since the revolt, by several hours, effective from Wednesday night.

The protesters appeared to be Tunisians from the rural hinterland who have been camping out at the government compound.

They shouted at the security forces that they were the “police of Leila”, a reference to Ben Ali’s unpopular wife, who was seen as having excessive influence and lavish tastes.

Trade unions held a general strike in Sfax, Tunisia’s second biggest city, and declared another strike for Thursday in Sidi Bouzid, the town where the uprising against Ben Ali started with a social protest last month.

Violent unrest

At least 78 people were killed during the anti-Ben Ali protests.

On Wednesday, the justice minister highlighted the scope of that unrest: Some 11,029 prisoners – about a third of the country’s prison population – were able to escape amid the chaos, he said. Of those, 1,532 prisoners are back behind bars and 74 other prisoners died in fires that broke out.

Tunisia’s uprising has electrified Arabs across the Middle East and North Africa, where many countries share the complaints of poor living standards and authoritarian rule.

Barack Obama, the US president, said in his State of the Union speech that “the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator”.

Inspired by Tunisia’s example, thousands of Egyptians have taken to the streets to demand an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, clashing with police who fired tear gas and used water cannon.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies