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Protesters Target Ben Ali's Allies As Tunisia's Prime Minister Names New Cabinet

  • Ron Synovitz

WATCH: Tunisian security forces used tear gas and water cannon to disperse protesters demanding that the ruling party of ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali give up power. (Video by Reuters)

Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi has unveiled a new national unity government, following the January 14 ouster by a popular revolt of longtime autocratic leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Ghannouchi was asked during the weekend by interim President Fouad Mebazza to form a coalition government that would include opposition leaders and that can introduce constitutional changes needed to transform Tunisia into a functioning democracy.

Unveiling his new cabinet today, Ghannouchi said it would include three opposition leaders, but that several ministers -- defense, the interior, finance, and foreign affairs -- would also keep their posts.

He said his team was committed to stabilizing the country as well as pursuing political and economic reform, and said that all political parties would be allowed.

But even as Ghannouchi was preparing to announce the new cabinet, he and other members of Tunisia's political elite were being named in fresh street protests today by demonstrators who say they are linked too closely to the ousted Ben Ali.

Tunisian security forces used water cannon and fired shots in the air to disperse about 1,000 protesters in central Tunis who were calling for the dissolution of Ben Ali's entire party -- the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD).

Interior Minister Ahmed Friaa said at least 78 people had been killed in the unrest.

'Democratic Forces'?

Frederic Volpi, a senior lecturer on international relations at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, says the key to whether such protests proliferate is the extent to which the new coalition government is willing to make changes for a genuine democratic transition.

"The people in charge -- the speaker of the parliament and the prime minister -- are former associates of the Ben Ali regime. They are now presenting themselves as reformers, and they are the ones who will be in charge of organizing the democratic transition," Volpi says.

"It remains to be seen to what degree they will facilitate genuine democratic transition and to what degree they will try to retain some of their prerogatives and use some of the old techniques of authoritarianism that they have used with Ben Ali over the years."

In particular, the appointment of RCD members to key power ministries -- along with a parliament that is comprised 90 percent of RCD lawmakers -- raises questions about whether the party is trying to retain its political control in Tunisia.

"In this new government of national unity, the key ministries are still in the hands of the former elite -- the minister of the interior, the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Affairs Ministry, for example. They are people who were nominated by Ben Ali. They say they want to open up the process to the opposition," Volpi says.

"Some of the opposition leaders have been invited into the government. But some haven't, for example, the leaders of the Islamic movement. So It remains to be seen how far [Ben Ali's former allies] are willing to open the door in this new political process."

In Berlin today, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle urged Tunisia's leadership to make real and substantive changes toward democracy.

"Right now there is a real opportunity for Tunisia to return to stability. The path toward stability is via democracy," Westerwelle said.

"That is the clear appeal by the German government for Tunisia to seize the opportunity to really introduce democracy with the rule of law, with civil rights, with freedom of opinion and the press."

'Looting And Criminality'

Meanwhile, there also are concerns in Tunisia about the looting and chaos that have engulfed the country after four weeks of protests over poor living conditions that forced Ben Ali from power.

Chief among those concerns is the reaction of die-hard Ben Ali loyalists in the security forces who fought army troops on January 16 at the presidential palace.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague complained today that some violence in Tunisia appears to be caused by troops loyal to Ben Ali.

"There continue to be disturbances in Tunisia, some of them seemingly caused by security forces still loyal to the former president," Hague said.

"We urge the interim leaders of Tunisia to act quickly and decisively to chart a way forward for Tunisia that complies with their constitution and respects human rights."

Tunisian resident Khaled compares the recent chaos to the bloodshed that swept the country amid civil unrest in 1978 and 1984.

"A country with no memory is a country with no future," Khaled said. "Now there are these 'death squads' patrolling around. They are burning the country and scaring the people. They even ordered prisoners to be freed so they could turn the country upside down and make the Tunisians believe that this country can only be handled by a vigilante government."

Indeed, residents in some parts of the capital set up neighborhood security posts during the weekend -- including roadblocks -- to discourage violence and looting.

A critical question now is whether the coalition government that tries to implement change receives the backing of security forces loyal to the ousted Ben Ali.
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