Tunisia's PM pledges to step aside after vote

Sat Jan 22, 2011 11:34am GMT

By Lin Noueihed and Andrew Hammond

TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia's interim prime minister promised to quit politics after elections, a pledge intended to appease protesters demanding remnants of the old guard leave a unity coalition formed after the overthrow of the president.

Mohamed Ghannouchi, who until a week ago was premier under ousted strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, hosted cabinet-level meetings on Saturday morning at his office. Police had rolled out barbed wire around it, bracing for a repeat of protests which seemed to rattle the interim leadership the previous day.

In an emotional late-night address on state television after a a day of protests outside his headquarters, Ghannouchi had sought to distance himself from Ben Ali and vowed to track him down. His former ally fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14.

"I lived like Tunisians and I feared like Tunisians," he said, striving to identify with the millions who suffered economic hardships and political repression for 24 years under Ben Ali and his rapacious family entourage.

"I pledge to stop all my political activity after my period leading the transitional government," Ghannouchi told Tunisians.

He had previously said he planned free elections soon, but protesters have been anxious for assurances that their uprising, which has electrified the oppressed poor across the Arab world, would not fizzle out with a simple reshuffle of the old guard.

Efforts by members of the former ruling party, the RCD, to recast themselves as fellow sufferers and sympathisers with the popular anger against Ben Ali have been echoed more widely. On Friday, policemen, whose ranks were once the bulwark of the elite, hugged demonstrators and said they had been victims too.

The streets of Tunis were calm early on Saturday, the second of three days of national mourning declared for the dozens killed in weeks of protests dubbed the "Jasmine Revolution."   Continued...

<p>Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali addresses participants of the second United Nation's World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis November 16, 2005. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir</p>
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