Tunisia protesters turn government HQ into campsite

Fri Jan 28, 2011 2:43pm GMT
 

By Lin Noueihed

TUNIS Jan 28 (Reuters) - They said they would bring their voice to the capital. A week on, protesters from Tunisia's rural interior have taken over the seat of government, setting up tents and distributing food to support their 24-hour sit-in.

The protest has taken on a festival atmosphere. Banners hang from the windows of Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi's office. The Ottoman-era building is covered in graffiti, some demanding the government go, some just hailing their own home town.

"SBZ," is tagged along the walls, referring to Sidi Bouzid, the marginalised central province where Tunisia's revolt began.

"Tataouine says Ghannouchi out" reads another.

These few hundred young men, many of them students, are the hard core of protesters who want to remove toppled president Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali's old guard from the interim government that will lead the country to its first democratic elections.

Many are not satisfied with Thursday's cabinet reshuffle, which purged the government of 12 members of the old guard, and said they would stay until Ghannouchi himself resigns.

"We are not leaving here until Ghannouchi leaves and we get a brand new government," said Saifeddine Missraoui, a student from Kairouan who has organised the distribution of food.

Behind him, dirty pans soak in water coloured red by the spicy harissa paste popular in across North Africa.

"The dictatorship in Tunisia continues and we will confront this until we have democracy ... Ghannouchi's silence is evidence of his collaboration," he said. "Revolution does not happen instantly. It could take two months or it could take a year."

Many Tunisians accuse Ben Ali and his coterie of amassing wealth at the expense of the people. While few accuse Ghannouchi himself of corruption, many say the man who served as prime minister under Ben Ali is tainted by association.

SOME RETHINKING

While those who came from the bleak farms and grim villages of the interior are determined to stay, those who joined them from the capital are beginning to rethink their position.

Sitting on mats and blankets beneath a tarpaulin, groups of protesters discuss whether to stay or go.

"We've reached the end but we have not crossed the finish line. Lots of people still want Ghannouchi to leave and others are celebrating this new line-up as a victory," said Mohamed Matousi, a student. "Opinions differ. It is not clear."

A clutch of Salafist Islamists, identifiable by their beards and short robes, walk around the tents chanting "God is Great."

Another group with a loudspeaker makes a list of demands, such as independent elections with international monitors, apparently unaware that Ghannouchi has already promised this.

One man demanded a council to redraft the constitution, though a High Committee for Political Reform has already been set up to revise the body of law, starting with election laws.

The area has been cut off. Barbed wire, soldiers and police stop protesters from reaching the casbah or old city.

Judges, lawyers and others arrived in their robes to try to persuade the protesters into ending their sit-in.

"This is just a transitional government and it is enough for now, to calm things down and for people to go back to work," said Khalil, from the capital. "We are here to convince people."

But standing beside a white gazebo labelled Casbah Media Relations, Naim Garbousi said protesters had a list of demands.

"The new line-up is a theatre. The symbols of the old regime are left, like Ghannouchi," said Garbousi, from the central town of Gefsa. "Why is he insisting on staying. We are 10 million people, there will surely be someone who can replace him." (Editing by Giles Elgood)

 
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