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.”
Ghannouchi promised compensation for the families of victims of human rights abuses.
Former leaders of Ben Ali’s ruling party, the RCD, have retained high profile ministries such as interior and foreign affairs in Ghannouchi’s makeshift unity coalition. Dissident politicians were brought into government with less influential posts such as higher education and regional development.
Five ministers have already quit the interim government, including one opponent of Ben Ali and three representatives of Tunisia’s big trade union, a key player in the revolt.
Outside the prime minister’s office on Friday, protesters jostled Ahmed Ibrahim, leader of the opposition Ettajdid Party and minister of higher education in the new cabinet, apparently angered at his role in a government they dislike.
Ibrahim later made an impassioned call to state TV: “This government is only temporary, real representation will come through elections ... The government is not in the hands of the ruling party, this claim is false,” he said.
“The government’s priority is stabilising the situation, protecting people’s safety and security and providing people’s basic needs. But there is also a political task to move from tyranny to democracy.”
Authorities have said they arrested 33 members of Ben Ali’s family for crimes against the state. On Friday, Interior Minister Ahmed Friia named one of those held as Imed Trabelsi, a nephew of Ben Ali’s wife Leila.
“Regarding our ability to track down those relatives of the ex-president and his wife who ran away, fleeing from Tunisia will not help them,” he told a televised news conference. “Tunisia has treaties with countries all over the world.”
State television showed pictures of weapons being removed from the homes of Ben Ali family members. “This shows the excesses of this family,” the channel said.
Ben Ali fell after weeks of unrest spurred by anger over poverty, unemployment and repression. It was the first popular uprising to topple an Arab leader in decades and has prompted speculation of unrest or change elsewhere in the region.
In central Tunis of Friday, crowds chanted: “We won’t accept this government, we will never accept it.” State television also showed hundreds protesting against the government in Gafsa, in the southwest, Sfax on the coast and Tataouine in the far south.
The government says at least 78 people have been killed since trouble began in December, when a young man burned himself to death in protest at police harassment and poverty. The United Nations has put the toll at around 100.
The new government said schools and universities would reopen on Monday and sporting events, also on hold since last week, would resume soon.
It offered a blanket amnesty to all political groups, including the banned Islamist opposition. Some political analysts say moderate Islamists could attract more followers in post-Ben Ali Tunisia than their secular rivals like to admit.
“The Islamist movement was the most oppressed of all the opposition movements under Ben Ali. Its followers are also much greater in number than those of the secular opposition,” said Salah Jourchi, a Tunisian expert on Islamic movements.
Protesters have complained that despite a promised amnesty, only a few hundred of those imprisoned for political reasons during Ben Ali’s 23-year rule had been released.