Wed January 19, 2011

Tunisia's New Government Fails To Mollify Protesters

Concessions by Tunisia's newly formed government failed to satisfy protesters, who took to the streets again Wednesday to demand that former allies of the ousted president relinquish power.

After weeks of violent clashes with police, the latest demonstrations were mostly peaceful. Hundreds of protesters marched in the capital, Tunis, hours before the country's interim government was expected to hold its first Cabinet meeting.

The meeting comes days after a popular uprising ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power, and the caretaker government run by his longtime prime minister was installed in a dramatic turn of events in the North African country.

But questions about the legitimacy of the government unveiled Sunday -- led by Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi and others with close ties to the autocratic Ben Ali -- have left many Tunisians uneasy.

At least four opposition ministers quit the new Cabinet Tuesday, aligning themselves with demonstrators who insist democratic change is impossible unless the government is purged of the old guard.

Ghannouchi and acting President Fouad Mebazaa, the former speaker of the lower house of parliament, quit the ruling RCD party Tuesday in an attempt to distance themselves from Ben Ali. The party itself kicked out Ben Ali, its founder, national TV reported.

Labor unions, students and members of the Ennahdha Islamist party, which Ben Ali banned in 1992 and cracked down on for years, have been among those still protesting since the president was deposed and fled to Saudi Arabia.

Demonstrators sang nationalist songs during Wednesday's protests and held up signs with "RCD Out!" as they walked down Avenue Bourguia in central Tunis. White-and-blue police vans lined the route.

Physics teacher Maatoug Mohsen was among protesters who gathered in front of a trade union building in Tunis. He told NPR that he thinks it's too risky to give the ruling party another chance.

"We want a coalition that reflects fully the will of the people, democracy, freedom and the basic needs of the population: food, water, clean air, jobs and overall national dignity," Mohsen said.

Tunisia, he added, is "not a banana republic."

Another protester, university lecturer Fathi Helal, said he and others worry that government corruption is likely to be covered up.

"Corruption is deeply entrenched ... in all the apparatus of the state," Helal told NPR.

In another apparent effort to quell the unrest, a Tunisian prosecutor has opened an investigation into the overseas assets of Ben Ali and his family, the official TAP news agency reported Wednesday. It said the prosecutor's office has decided to investigate bank accounts, real estate and other assets held by Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, and other relatives.

Despite the continued protests, the government has reduced the hours of an overnight curfew put in place last week, citing "an improvement in the security situation in the country," the news agency also reported. The curfew hours will now be 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., rather than 6 p.m. to 7 a.m.

The unrest also rattled Tunisia's economy, which has seen impressive growth in recent years. Moody's Investor Service downgraded Tunisia's government bond ratings Wednesday, citing "significant uncertainties" surrounding the country's economic and political future.

The protests began last month when an educated but unemployed 26-year-old man set himself on fire after police confiscated the fruit and vegetables he was selling illegally. The move hit a nerve among frustrated jobless youths and prompted protests around the nation. Officials say at least 78 protesters and civilians died in the protests that swept Ben Ali from power -- many killed by police bullets.

Ben Ali was often criticized for heavy-handed repression against his opponents, curbing civil liberties and running a police state -- though he was praised for developing tourism and allying with the U.S. against terrorism. His relatives, especially his wife's family, were seen as corrupt and dominated many businesses in the nation.

Bowing to protesters' demands in recent days, Ghannouchi has pledged to free political prisoners, lift restrictions on the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights and create state panels to investigate possible bribery and abuses during the upheaval.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reported from Tunis for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.