* Small businesses say they want to return to work
* Shopkeepers act to protect their businesses
By Lin Noueihed
TUNIS, Jan 29 (Reuters) - Desperate to return to work after weeks of protests brought Tunis to a standstill, shopkeepers armed with sticks and knives guarded the entrance to the covered market on Saturday and pushed back a small gang of protesters.
Shopkeepers said they were satisfied with a government reshuffle announced on Thursday, which replaced 12 ministers linked to ousted president Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali but retained Mohamed Ghannouchi as prime minister.
Armed with wooden sticks, knives and stones, shopkeepers fought back against a small group of hardcore protesters who tried to storm the capital’s tree-lined Bourguiba Avenue, scene of dozens of protests during Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution”.
“We want stability. We have a transitional government now... We are against chaos. These people want everything to change in a day,” Ahmed Oueslati, who owns a nearby haberdashery shop.
“We’re nearly bankrupt. They stopped all our business,” said Oueslati, who chased down protesters with a metal pole.
On Friday, police broke up a makeshift camp set up by a hardcore of protesters who came from the rural interior a week ago to demand the resignation of the government and were not satisfied with the latest changes.
It was not clear if Saturday’s protesters were from that camp, as some shopkeepers suggested, or gangs loyal to Ben Ali trying to prevent a return to normal life, as others insisted.
“These people are just here to loot. Let this government do its work. We are fine with Ghannouchi... We tried to talk to these people but they want a prime minister from Sidi Bouzid,” shouted one shopkeeper, referring to the town where Tunisia’s revolt began when a desperate man set himself alight.
“Let people work and earn their bread. People have to close their shops four or five times a day,” another man shouted.
Before the clashes, business had begun to return to normal inside the narrow streets of the casbah, or old city, close to government offices where protesters had set up a makeshift camp.
Lots of shops had reopened after days of closures, and workmen were busy scrubbing graffiti off the Ottoman-era building that houses the prime minister’s office.
Electricians were fixing the lamp posts knocked over by protesters and restoring broken marble steps. The walls of the finance ministry, covered in scrawls, were painted pristine white again by Saturday lunchtime.
“We have been closed since the protest began. We have not worked. This is our first day for two weeks,” said Mohamed Ali Trudi, surrounded by a stack of fez, traditional red felt caps.
“It shouldn’t be like this. It should be peaceful.”
Ben Ali left Tunisia on Jan. 14 after weeks of protests demanding an end to his 23-year police rule. But the interim government set up to lead the country to elections struggled to assert itself as it retained several ministers of the old guard.
Thursday’s reshuffle, supported by the influential labour union that organised some strikes, seems to have appeased most.
In the cloth souq, most shopkeepers had their green shutters open, their North African robes and textiles hanging outside.
“We’ve been open since the revolution to encourage our neighbours to do the same. No one was buying but we wanted anyone who walked past to see us open,” said Choukri Benzekri.
“The transitional government should work. We have confidence in it. We waited 23 years, we can wait six months for this government to organise an election.” (For related news stories click on [ID:nLDE70N1VD])) (Editing by Jon Boyle)