Resignations rock Tunisia government

Four ministers in Tunisia’s new unity government pulled out Tuesday, a day after they were appointed, amid mass protests over the inclusion of members of ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime.

Ben Ali’s Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) meanwhile expelled the ex-president, who fled to Saudi Arabia in disgrace Friday after 23 years in power, and six of his close associates, the official TAP news agency reported.

Interim president Foued Mebazaa and Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi separately quit the RCD after the new government decided to separate the organs of state and political parties, TAP reported.

The party held on to key posts in the new government announced on Monday, including the foreign, defence and interior ministries.

Three new ministers from Tunisia’s main trade union announced their withdrawal after the union refused to recognise an administration that contains eight ministers from president’s discredited regime.

“We are resigning from the government,” said Houssine Dimassi, employment minister in the transitional government.

The appointed health minister, opposition Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberty (FDLT) leader Mustapha Ben Jaafar who had yet to be sworn in, also said he would hold off on joining the new government.

“He has not been sworn in, awaiting consultations of the prime minister concerning FDLT demands on the composition of the cabinet,” Abdellatif Abid, a member of the party’s political bureau, told AFP.

Anger against the new line-up brought thousands of protesters onto the streets of Tunis and several other cities.

Riot police fired tear gas to break up a rally in the capital led by key Islamist figure Sadok Chourou, who was imprisoned for 20 years under the old regime.

“The new government does not represent the people and has to fall,” Chourou, 63, a former leader of the popular Islamist movement Ennahdha (Awakening) movement, told AFP.

Protesters chanted: “We can live on bread and water alone but not with the RCD.”

Tunisia’s new leadership is due to hold parliamentary and presidential elections in the next six months, although no precise dates have been set.

Ghannouchi, one of the eight ministers staying on from the previous government, said that he and the others had helped “preserve the national interest” during days of chaos in the country.

“They kept their posts because we need them at this time,” Ghannouchi said on French radio Europe 1. “All of them have clean hands,” he said.

But many Tunisians were not convinced. “This isn’t a transitional government, it’s the return of the old regime in a different form,” said Mustapha Hammami, a trade unionist in a cafe in the historic Medina downtown area of the capital Tunis.

The prime minister also said that those responsible for repressions during the past month of protests would be put on trial. “All who were involved in those massacres will answer to justice,” Ghannouchi said.

Interior Minister Ahmed Friaa said Monday 78 people had been killed in the protests — several times higher than the last official death toll — and losses to the economy amounted to 1.6 billion euros (2.2 billion dollars), equivalent to around four percent of GDP.

The prime minister also announced that popular Islamist leader Rached Ghannouchi, not a relative, would be able to return from exile in London once an amnesty law had been approved as he had a life sentence hanging over him.

The Islamist was tried in absentia in 1992 for plotting against the state.

The popular Islamist Ennahdha movement said it would seek to acquire legal status as a political party and take part in the planned elections.

One of Ben Ali’s fiercest critics Moncef Marzouki — who has said he intends to run in the presidential election — returned to Tunisia on Tuesday after years of exile in Paris, with emotional scenes at Tunis airport.

Marzouki said he would travel to the city of Sidi Bouzid in central Tunisia where social protests that escalated into a revolt against Ben Ali kicked off last month, calling the area “a land of martyrs and free people.”

The Tunisian revolt has inspired dissidents in several Arab countries and there has been a spate of public suicides similar to the one of a 26-year-old graduate whose self-immolation in Sidi Bouzid sparked the protests.

Two Egyptians set themselves on fire on Tuesday and a father-of-six became the fifth Algerian to turn himself into a human fireball.

In tightly controlled Yemen, police fired warning shots as hundreds of protesters chanted pro-Tunisia slogans at Sanaa University.