Tunisia forms unity government in effort to quell unrest


Serving ministers of defence, interior, finance and foreign affairs all keep their jobs alongside newcomers from opposition
Angelique Chrisafis in Tunis and Ian Black

Mohamed Ghannouchi
The Tunisian prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, addresses a press conference in Tunis. Photograph: EPA

Tunisian politicians took their first practical step into the future today by creating an interim national unity government including opposition politicians, in an effort to quell continuing unrest following the ousting of the veteran Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali as president last week.
The government was dominated by old faces, with the serving ministers of defence, interior, finance and foreign affairs keeping their jobs alongside three newcomers taking part in what they hope will be a peaceful democratic transition via free elections that will serve as a model for other repressive Arab regimes.
“We are committed to intensifying our efforts to re-establish calm and peace in the hearts of all Tunisians,” the prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, told a news conference in a still tense and occasionally violent capital. “Our priority is security, as well as political and economic reform.” He named Najib Chebbi, founder of the opposition PDP party, as minister of regional development. Tunisian journalists complained, however, that Ghannouchi had refused to answer questions.
In an act of powerful symbolism an arrested blogger, Slim Amamou – a folk hero of internet struggles against the Ben Ali regime – was appointed secretary of state for youth and sports. But there was criticism from opposition supporters that the old guard was also well represented.
Ghannouchi said all non-governmental associations would now be automatically recognised if they wanted to be, while all restrictions on the Tunisian League for the Defence of Human Rights would be lifted. All political prisoners are to be freed, one of a series of measures aimed at loosening up a political system that for decades was effectively under the sole rule of Ben Ali’s RCD party. Opposition supporters have called for the RCD to be shunned or banned, like the Iraqi Ba’ath party after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
The new government quickly rose to one of its biggest challenges by creating a corruption commission to halt the pillaging of the economy by Ben Ali’s mafia-style family amid reports that his loathed wife had spirited away gold and cash.
French secret services have reportedly warned that Leila Trabelsi, the lavish, shopaholic first lady of the ousted dictator, might have taken 1.5 tonnes of gold ingots out of the Tunisian national bank and flown the loot, worth €54m, to exile in Saudi Arabia.
Opposition figures could not confirm this account in the French paper Le Monde but the Ben Ali family was certainly engaged in vast cash transfers outside the country as late as last weekend.
Mahmoud Romdhane, an economist and member of the opposition Tajdid party, said that the vice governor of the central bank had not confirmed any missing gold. Romdhane said: “Most of our gold is in Fort Knox. There is only a little bullion here. But we’ve found they have been making foreign cash transfers.”
Foreign lawyers in Tunis were preparing the difficult task of tracking Ben Ali and his family’s millions, with two corruption cases lodged in courts in Paris. Ben Ali may have hidden money in Argentina and the Maldives, one lawyer said.
Several of Ben Ali’s family’s villas have been burned and ransacked as people rage at a lavish lifestyle that included pet tigers, Porsches and fruit flown in from other continents – revelations from WikiLeaks cables published in the Guardian.
The clan had taken a grip of the economy of the small Maghreb country which lacks the natural resources of its neighbours. Ben Ali and his wife’s families own vast shares of Tunisia’s banks, supermarkets, airlines, phone companies, factories and real estate and also took a huge cut of any foreign investment. Economists said they hoped the family’s assets would immediately be nationalised then resold.
State TV today carried the banner headline: “The intifada (uprising) continues! Power to the people” as a curfew remained in place and residents in some neighbourhoods armed themselves with sticks in fear of militia raids. The interior minister said 78 people had died since the beginning of the protests.
Around 1,300 diehard loyalists from Ben Ali’s presidential guard were understood to be holed up in the palace in Carthage where they fought gun battles with the military last night. Unwilling to lose their powerful positions, they are well-armed and well-funded, and better equipped than the military.
In the centre of Tunis, a small, peaceful protest of up to 300 demonstrators, some thought to have links to leftwing opposition movements, gathered on the city’s Bourguiba Avenue around midday in protest at the presence of the RCD in the interim caretaker government.
Riot police fired teargas into the crowd and picked some people out, beating them with batons. Protesters tried to regroup but ran screaming into side streets as more teargas canisters flew. As preparations for curfew began at 5pm, the avenue was calm, tanks and soldiers remained outside the interior ministry and plainclothes police, many now wearing white jackets bearing the word “police” – a symbolic change – stood on street corners with batons.
Vigilante groups kept watch in some neighbourhoods in fear of looters and militia. But many workers came into the centre of Tunis to their jobs or to queue for bread or supermarket staples. “I’m back at work because we have to show some semblance of normality for the new government,” said a 35-year-old printer.

The caretaker government is intended to act as a technocratic stop-gap to prepare free elections. Its biggest tasks are setting up three investigation commissions: one to examine the deaths and violence of recent weeks and the human rights abuses of the old regime, one into corruption, and one for political reform. Free elections will then take place with international observers.

“We’re a well-educated people with civic pride and unrivalled women’s equality. We want this to work,” said a university teacher who had been teargassed at protests last week.

The RCD headquarters was under guard by the army today with its windows smashed. Some on the left said they did not want it in the caretaker government, but others said it was too pervasive in public life to be excluded.

“This had to be a government where the symbolic figures of the old regime don’t exist anymore,” said Khalil Ezzaouia, a trade unionist whose party is in the new government. But he said there had to be co-operation with those mainly technocrat figures of the party who had not been involved in human rights abuses.

The former British ambassador Stephen Day likened the RCD to Iraq’s Ba’ath party, a party which so dominated every strand of public life that often to get a job people had to have a party link. “It can’t just be wiped out as a party overnight,” said an opposition supporter. “There will a gradual process of political reform.”

It was striking that the revolution took place without Islamist slogans, though the Islamist party Ennahda is expected to take part in the political reform commission and to prepare to run in the elections. Other opposition parties said the Islamists, who were brutally repressed under the Ben Ali regime, had subscribed to democratic rights and women’s equality. Some on the left were sceptical but all agreed the Islamists should be included in election preparations. “It’s like a mirage, we’re afraid of it but we’ve never seen it,” one businessman said of the Islamists.

Some human rights campaigners feared lynch-mob style reprisals among militia attacks. There were reports at the weekend of men dragged from cars and beaten. “We need a commission to look at all the repression and violence,” said Halima Jouini, a maths teacher and women’s rights campaigner. “We must forget nothing, but there must be no vengeance.”

Related Articles

The Bi-Partisan Attack on Public Workers


States everywhere across the United States are facing the common enemy of extreme budget deficits. Many states have deficits in

Neoliberalism, Political Repression and the Rise of Mexico’s Narco-State


The Electrical Workers Union versus President Calderon“We are confronting a monster; a force that ridicules, deceives and wants to destroy

Ivory Coast closes its borders as tensions rise after disputed poll


Opposition’s apparent election victory dismissed by presidential aides as ‘attempted coup d’etat’ David Smith and agencies Supporters of Ivory Coast’s

No comments

Write a comment
No Comments Yet! You can be first to comment this post!

Write a Comment