TUNIS (Reuters) - Police fired teargas canisters to disperse protesters in central Tunis on Monday as pressure grew for the removal of government ministers linked to ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
The protesters, mostly from marginalised rural areas who had camped out overnight at the prime minister’s office, broke windows at the nearby finance ministry building.
More than a week after Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi took the reins of an interim coalition following the overthrow of Ben Ali, he and other former loyalists of the feared ruling party face growing opposition despite a series of concessions.
What shape an eventual popular leadership might take is unclear. Opposition parties exist but are not well known after decades of oppression. A hitherto banned Islamist party has called for early elections and may find support.
Police put under house arrest Abdelwahhab Abdalla, the Ben Ali political adviser in charge of monitoring the media, state television said on Monday.
Authorities said on Sunday Abdalla, who managed government appointees to state media outlets, had vanished and was sought by police.
The interim government said last week 33 members of Ben Ali’s family had been arrested. On Sunday, police arrested two confidantes of Ben Ali.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Monday that France, the former colonial power, would offer emergency aid to Tunisia as it grapples with a transition to a new government. He acknowledged criticism of Paris’s past support for Ben Ali.
“There was a desperation, a suffering, a feeling of suffocation which, we have to admit, we did not properly assess,” he said at a Paris news conference.
Sarkozy said France would hunt down wealth plundered during Ben Ali’s time in power and return it to Tunisians, and the Paris prosecutor said later it had opened a preliminary investigation into his French assets.
French-educated Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14 after violent protests against high food prices, unemployment and his authoritarian rule. French authorities denied him entry but suspect he holds property in France.
In Tunis on Monday, police and army blocked off around 500 protesters who were inside the government compound in the old city, or casbah. Around 1,000 other demonstrators filled the streets and a large square nearby, unable to approach the area.
“Why don’t they let us break the barriers and join our brothers? Why do they say they will allow us the right to protest then stop us?,” said Kamal Ashour. from Tunis.
“Are they afraid the government will really be shaken? It seems that Ben Ali’s regime is back.”
A scuffle broke out between police and protesters when a black limousine, apparently carrying a minister, came to the compound area and protesters threw stones.
The teachers’ union called a strike on Monday, when primary schools were to reopen as part of moves to bring the country back to normal. But the level of support was not clear.
For days, protesters have gathered at the premier’s office, limited in numbers but with wider support among a population unused to free political expression.
Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane, who served under Ben Ali, said he would not step down for the moment.
“As for my post as a minister, I see it as a way to help my country at a difficult moment. I am not insisting on staying in the government,” he told the French newspaper Le Figaro.
His concern was that the country might “descend into chaos”.
Ghannouchi said on Friday he intended to retire from politics after organising elections. But despite signs many Tunisians would like a return to calm, his words have failed to stem calls for him to go now.
Former members of Ben Ali’s RCD ruling party retain key ministries, notably interior, defence and foreign affairs.
Ghannouchi has sought to distance himself from the former leader. He promised compensation for the families of victims of human rights abuses.
The Tunisians’ revolt has electrified millions across the Arab world who suffer similarly from unemployment, rising prices and corrupt rule, often by leaders backed by Western powers as a bulwark against radical Islam. Arab governments have responded to recent protests with concessions — and police repression.
The government says 78 people were killed in demonstrations in Tunisia since December. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights put the number at 117, including 70 killed by live fire.