January 19, 2011 / 1:42 PM / in 8 years

Protests as Tunisia's new unity cabinet meets

TUNIS (Reuters) - Hundreds of protesters demonstrated in the Tunisian capital on Wednesday to demand the dismissal from the new coalition government of ministers associated with ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

The national unity cabinet was due to hold its first meeting, with its caretaker prime minister under pressure from opposition leaders and protesters who say there is no place in government for allies of the former leader.

Four opponents of Ben Ali quit the government within a day of being appointed, saying protesters were disappointed at how many of the old guard, including Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, were still in power.

The weeks of protests over poverty and unemployment, which cost scores of lives and forced Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia, prompted speculation across the Arab world that other repressive governments might also face unrest.

About 500 people were protesting in Bourguiba Avenue in the centre of Tunis on Wednesday, fewer than in recent days.

“This will continue every day until we get rid of the ruling party,” said Faydi Borni, a teacher. “We got rid of the dictator but not the dictatorship. We want rid of this government that shut us up for 30 years.”

Not all Tunisians back the protests. “We’ve been living so long under pressure but maybe we should give the government a chance,” said one woman bystander, who did not want to give her name. “People will have a chance to vote.”

Around the protest, life continued as normal. Trams were passing through the middle of the demonstration. Protesters clapped a woman tram driver who smiled at them as she edged through the crowd.

Tunis residents said the streets were quiet overnight, with no shooting or looting. In a sign that security was improving, state television said that the nightly curfew was shortened by three hours. It will now run from 8 p.m. (1900 GMT) until 5 a.m.

Moncef Marzouki, the leader of a small opposition party who returned to Tunisia from exile in France this week, visited the grave of Mohamed Bouazizi, who set fire to himself in an act of protest and started the wave of unrest which toppled Ben Ali.

Marzouki, who plans to run for president, later went to the spot where Bouazizi set himself on fire, outside the local government headquarters in Sidi Bouzid, where he was greeted by about 300 people who lifted him onto their shoulders.

Many of those there held up banners demanding the government be purged of people with links to Ben Ali’s RCD party.

“Ghannouchi must go!” said one banner. Another banner read: “The people demand that Ben Ali’s people leave!”

Someone had daubed in red paint on a wall: “The square of the martyr, Mohamed Bouazizi.”

INTERNATIONAL CONCERN

Underlining international concern over Tunisia, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about Washington’s desire for calm.

At a summit in Egypt, the head of the Arab League warned the region’s leaders to heed economic and political problems that caused the upheaval in Tunisia because they were issues that affected all Arab states.

In an indication of the new government’s desire to break with the past, the ruling RCD party cancelled the party membership of Ben Ali, former presidential adviser Abd Elwahab Abdallah, Ben Ali’s son-in-law Sakher Materi and brother-in-law Belhassen Trebelsi, state television reported.

Switzerland said it was freezing the assets of Ben Ali and his entourage, widely accused of enriching themselves massively during his 23 years in power.

Tunisia’s state news agency said an investigation would be launched into allegations that Ben Ali, wife Leila, and members of their families had acquired property and stocks abroad. It said there would be an inquiry into the transfer of foreign currency abroad by members of Ben Ali’s extended family.

The government says at least 78 people were killed in the unrest and the cost in damage and lost business was estimated at $2 billion.

France said it had intercepted a shipment of riot gear, including tear gas canisters and bullet-proof vests, ordered by Ben Ali just before his downfall.

Rating agency Moody’s Investors Service on Wednesday lowered its credit rating for Tunisia, and Standard and Poor’s has threatened to do so if uncertainty continues. The cost of insuring Tunisia’s debt against default rose sharply.

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