Wednesday, January 19, 2011
TUNIS: Tunisia’s new coalition government hit trouble Tuesday when four ministers quit and an opposition party threatened to walk out, undermining efforts to restore stability and end unrest on the streets.
Prime Minister Mohammad Ghannouchi brought opposition leaders into the coalition Monday after President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia after weeks of street protests.
But key figures from the old guard kept their jobs, angering opposition members of the coalition and protesters.
In a bid to defuse the row, Ghannouchi and the caretaker president, Fouad Mebazza, later quit their party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally, long the vehicle for Ben Ali’s authoritarian rule. State television, which reported the move, said the two men hoped to “split the state from the party.”
The R.C.D. also expelled the ex-president and six of his close associates, the official TAP news agency reported.
But the immediate response of trade union U.G.T.T. was that while this was positive, it was not enough to reverse a decision to pull its three members out of the new unity government. Junior Transportation and Equipment Minister Anouar Ben Gueddour told The Associated Press Tuesday that he had resigned along with Houssine Dimassi, the labor minister, and Minister without Portfolio Abdeljelil Bedoui.
Opposition Health Minister Mustafa Ben Jaafar also resigned, his party said.
Police in Tunis used tear gas trying to break up a protest by opposition party supporters and trade unionists who labeled the new government a “sham.” Several hundred people also protested against the new government in Monastir, south of Tunis.
Signaling concerns in financial markets, Standard & Poor’s said it might cut Tunisia’s credit ratings. Several European tour operators said Tuesday they have canceled trips to Tunisia through mid-February due to safety concerns.
Abid al-Briki of U.G.T.T. said it still wanted to see all ministers from Ben Ali’s cabinet pushed out, though it would make an exception for Prime Minister Ghannouchi: “This is in response to the demands of people on the streets,” Briki said.
The opposition Ettajdid party will pull out of the coalition if ministers from Ben Ali’s R.C.D. party do not give up party membership and return to the state all properties they obtained through the R.C.D., state television said.
Ettajdid leader Ahmad Ibrahim was named higher education minister.
On the streets, protesters insisted that ministers who had served Ben Ali had no place in the government. “The new government is a sham. It’s an insult to the revolution that claimed lives and blood,” said student Ahmad al-Haji.
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.
He said the defense, interior, finance and foreign affairs ministers under Ben Ali would keep their jobs in the new government.
“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,” Ghannouchi told Europe 1 radio. He rejected suggestions that the Ben Ali “dictatorship” would continue under a new guise. Tunisia has entered “an era of liberty,” Ghannouchi said. “Give us a chance so that we can put in place this ambitious program of reform.” He insisted the ministers chosen “have clean hands, in addition to great competence.”
Paris-based opposition leader Moncef Marzouki arrived at Tunis airport to be met by 200 cheering supporters. “The revolution must continue,” said Marzouki, who went into exile after being harassed by Ben Ali’s intelligence services.
Marzouki urged fellow Tunisians to hold firm in their efforts to bring down Ben Ali’s party. “Don’t let anyone steal this blessed revolution from you,” he said. “Don’t waste the blood of our martyrs. We don’t want any revenge, but we are fast with our principle that this horrible party does not return.”
The government says at least 78 people were killed in the unrest, and the cost in damage and lost business was $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 prime minister also announced that popular Islamist leader Rached Ghannouchi, not a relative, would be able to return from exile in London once an amnesty law had been approved as he had a life sentence hanging over him.
The Islamist was tried in absentia in 1992 for plotting against the state.
The popular Islamist Ennahdha movement said it would seek to acquire legal status as a political party and take part in the planned elections.
British Foreign Minister William Hague warned that it would be wrong to expect events in Tunisia to spark similar protests in the region. – With agencies