Africa

Tunisia ministers quit government as protests resume

  • 18 January 2011
  • From the section Africa

Four ministers have withdrawn from Tunisia's national unity government, just one day after it was unveiled.

Three from the opposition General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) were later joined by Health Minister Mustafa ben Jaafar, a key opposition leader.

PM Mohammed Ghannouchi angered many protesters when he kept several ministers from the former ruling RCD party in their jobs.

Tuesday saw new demonstrations in Tunis and reports of protests elsewhere.

Fresh demonstrations were reported in Sfax, Regueb, Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid - where the revolt began in December when a 26-year-old man set himself on fire.

Riot police were deployed in central Tunis as large crowds gathered to voice their anger at the make-up of the new government.

Police broke up at least one rally and clashed with some protesters, who waved banners and chanted anti-RCD slogans.

Discontent

Mr Ghannouchi had hoped to placate protesters on Monday by announcing a government of national unity.

The line-up included members of the opposition but also retained members of the RCD in key ministerial positions including the defence, interior and foreign portfolios.

But first the junior transport minister, Anouar Ben Gueddour, and two other ministers, Abdeljelil Bedoui and Houssine Dimassi, decided to leave the government. All three are members of the UGTT.

Later on Tuesday a senior figure in the Union of Freedom and Labour party said that its leader Mustafa ben Jaafar, as health minister a senior member of the government, was also stepping down.

Earlier, the UGTT reportedly held an extraordinary meeting at which it decided not to recognise the new government.

"This is in response to the demands of people on the streets," union organiser Abid al-Briki said.

A UGTT representative reportedly told state TV its ministers' decision to step down was due to the continued presence of the RCD in the government.

UGTT activists were prominent in the demonstrations that eventually led to the ousting of President Zine al-Abindine Ben Ali last Friday.

The remainder of Tunisia's new government was said to be meeting the prime minister on Tuesday afternoon, many thought to be carrying the message that the RCD must leave the government.

On the streets there was clear anger.

"The new government is a sham. It's an insult to the revolution that claimed lives and blood," student Ahmed al-Haji told Reuters news agency.

'Sham'

At the airport in Tunis there were jubilant scenes on Tuesday as veteran political dissident Moncef Marzouki returned to the country after more than 20 years in exile in France.

Mr Marzouki leads the Congress for the Republic, a secular party that was banned under the previous regime. He has pledged to stand in upcoming presidential elections.

"I'll do everything I can to ensure a real transition to democracy and peace in this country," he told cheering crowds near the airport, urging them to remain opposed to the RCD.

"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."

Earlier, Prime Minister Ghannouchi defended the inclusion of members of the old regime in his new government.

He said they had "clean hands" and had always acted "to preserve the international interest".

He repeated pledges made on Monday of a new "era of freedom", which would see political parties free to operate and a free press.

He said free and fair elections would be held within six months, controlled by an independent election commission and monitored by international observers.

But while some protesters appeared ready to wait and see, others immediately described the new government as a sham.

Unrest in Tunisia grew over several weeks, with widespread protests over high unemployment and high food prices pitching demonstrators against Tunisia's police and military.

President Ben Ali was forced into exile last Friday.

On Monday the government admitted 78 people had died in street clashes.