Loyalists of ousted Tunisia leader expected to go

Tunisia plans to overhaul the lineup of its interim government on Thursday, a move expected to see key loyalists of ousted leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali step aside in a bid to end persistent protests.

Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14 when weeks of violent protests against poverty, repression and corruption toppled him after 23 years in power.

Since then, an interim government that includes many former ruling party officials has struggled to impose order.

Protesters have been demanding for days that the makeshift coalition government be purged of Ben Ali’s allies. They clashed with police again on Wednesday.

“The reshuffle will be announced tomorrow, Thursday,” government spokesman Taieb Bakouch was quoted as saying on the Tunisian state news agency on Wednesday. Political sources said the interior, defense and foreign ministers were to be replaced.

Tunisia’s uprising has electrified Arabs across the Middle East and North Africa, where many countries share the complaints of poor living standards and authoritarian rule.

Inspired by Tunisia’s example, thousands of Egyptians have taken to the streets to demand an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, clashing with police who fired tear gas and used water cannon.

In addition to the cabinet reshuffle, Tunisia is aiming to set up a council of “wise men” to guide the country to democracy from the authoritarian state run by Ben Ali.

Veteran politician Ahmed Mestiri, a prominent figure during the era of Tunisia’s independence leader Habib Bourguiba, said he hoped to head the council.

“The council would protect the revolt that broke out spontaneously. The time has come for the process to be structured,” Mestiri, 80, said in an interview on Wednesday.

Tunisia says it is seeking international arrest warrant to bring Ben Ali, his wife and other family members to justice for theft and currency offences during their rule, when those surrounding the president grew wealthy.

“We are asking Interpol to find all those who fled, including the president and this woman (his wife), for trial in Tunisia,” Justice Minister Lazhar Karoui Chebbi said.

Despite the clashes, the interim government announced it would reduce the curfew, in place since the revolt, by several hours, effective from Wednesday night.

Clashes broke out on Wednesday near government offices in the old city, or casbah. Riot police fired tear gas at hundreds of protesters, mainly teenagers and young men, who threw stones.

The protesters appeared to be Tunisians from the rural hinterland who have been camping out at the government compound.

They shouted at the security forces that they were the “police of Leila”, a reference to Ben Ali’s unpopular wife, who was seen as having excessive influence and lavish tastes.