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Tunisia plans unity government, uneasy peace holds

Tunisian army consolidated its grip on the streets of Tunis

January 16, 2011 4:43 by

Tunisian politicians were trying to form a unity government on Sunday while the army consolidated its grip on the streets of the capital two days after President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted by violent protests.

Tanks were stationed around Tunis and soldiers were guarding public buildings, but after a day of drive-by shootings and jailbreaks in which dozens of inmates were killed, residents said they were starting to feel more secure.

“Last night we surrounded our neighbourhood with roadblocks and had teams checking cars. Now we are in the process of lifting the roadblocks and getting life back to normal” said a man, Imed, in the city’s Intilaka suburb.

The official who was in charge of security for Ben Ali is to appear in court on charges of stoking violence and threatening national security.

Sunday is not a working day in Tunisia and the streets were quiet, but some people were moving about, shopping for food. For the first time in days, a handful of commercial vehicles — vans and pick-up trucks — could be seen making deliveries.

The only occasional sounds of gunfire overnight were a marked change from the heavy shooting the previous night but analysts say there may be more protests if the opposition believes it is not sufficiently represented in a new government.

The speaker of parliament Fouad Mebazza, sworn in as interim president, has asked Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi to form a government of national unity and constitutional authorities said a presidential election should be held within 60 days.

Ghannouchi was due to hold more talks on Sunday to try to fill the vacuum left when Ben Ali, president for more than 23 years, fled to Saudi Arabia following a month of protests over poverty, jobs and repression that claimed scores of lives.

While there have been relatively positive noises from the talks so far, the negotiations may run into trouble when they get down to the detail of which parties get which cabinet post and how many of the old guard are included.


Ahmed Ibrahim, head of the opposition Ettajdid party, said he and other party leaders would meet Ghannouchi on Sunday.

“The main thing for us right now is to stop all this disorder. We are in agreement on several principles concerning the new government. We will continue to discuss. My message is to say no to Gaddafi: we do not want to go backwards,” he said, in reference to a speech by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi who said Tunisians were too hasty to get rid of Ben Ali.

Opposition parties want assurances that presidential elections will be free, that they will have enough time to campaign, that the country will move towards greater democracy and that the power of the ruling RCD party will be loosened.

Two opposition parties have also already said the two-month deadline for holding elections is too soon.

Opposition leader Najib Chebbi said after talks with Ghannouchi on Saturday that elections could be held under international supervision within six or seven months.

Beirut-based commentator Rami Khouri said it could take a while for Tunisia’s opposition of secularists, leftists and Islamists to coalesce because there was no unified movement.

“The process will probably take weeks at least and then you have to sort out the logistics of the interim government, the unity cabinet … you have never had an Arab country where the people can suddenly start from scratch,” he told Reuters.

The ousting of Tunisia’s president after widespread protests could embolden Arab opposition movements and citizens to challenge entrenched governments across the Middle East.

“It was always said that the Arab world was boiling but the continued state of stagnation made some doubt infiltrate minds. I think this doubt has now gone,” Hany al-Masri, a Palestinian commentator based in Ramallah, said.

Hamas supporters rallied in Gaza holding large posters of Ben Ali bearing the words: “Oh, Arab leaders, learn the lesson.”


As well as soldiers patrolling the streets of Tunis, residents have been manning their own barricades to protect their property from looters taking advantage of the chaos.

“We came out on the streets and dressed in white vests so we can identify one another. We told the police in the neighbourhood that we are here and we’re dressed in white — it was during curfew hours. We came prepared … some brought sticks and we collected rocks,” one man told Reuters Television.

In the chic Belvedere Park neighbourhood, residents used rubbish bins and lumps of concrete to block off their streets.

Gunmen fired at random from cars in Tunis on Saturday. It was not clear who the assailants were but a military source said people still loyal to Ben Ali were behind the shootings.

The army was drafted in last weekend to reinforce the police. Since then, they have maintained a strong presence on the streets, backed by military helicopters, while the police have been largely absent, or ineffectual.

“We must be equally vigilant about the role of the army,” Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan said in a commentary on his website. “The people may be offered the appearance of freedom minus the dictator, followed by a new clampdown on Tunisian political life.”

Western and Arab powers have called for calm and unity.

The French government called on Tunisia to hold free elections as soon as possible and said it had taken steps “to ensure suspicious financial movements concerning Tunisian assets in France are blocked administratively”.

Hundreds of European tourists stranded by the unrest have been flown home on emergency flights.

A French photographer died after sustaining head injuries on Friday from a tear gas canister fired by a police officer, Reporters Without Borders said. (Writing by Alison Williams; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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