January 19, 2011 / 4:47 PM / 8 years ago

Tunisia frees prisoners, says wants break with past

TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia’s interim leaders said they freed the last of its political prisoners and promised a “complete break with the past” on Wednesday to appease street protesters who want a total purge of the old guard.

A passenger gives the peace sign from a tram window while passing a demonstration in downtown Tunis, January 19, 2011. REUTERS/ Finbarr O'Reilly

Five days after veteran strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia with some of his wealthy entourage, former political allies including the prime minister were still trying to coax opposition figures into a national unity government which can restore order and oversee promised free elections.

State television said 33 of Ben Ali’s clan had been arrested for crimes against the nation. It showed what it said was seized gold and jewellery. Switzerland froze Ben Ali’s family assets.

Demonstrators, though less numerous than during the days of rage which unseated Ben Ali, continued to insist on the removal of all ministers from his once feared RCD party. Only that, they said, could satisfy the hopes of their “Jasmine Revolution,” which has delivered a shock to autocrats across the Arab world.

Members of the interim leadership who held senior roles in the RCD have rushed to distance themselves from it. Interim President Fouad Mebazza and Prime Minister Mohamed al-Ghannouchi both quit the part on Tuesday.

In a televised address on Wednesday, Mebazza, until last week the speaker of Ben Ali’s rubber-stamp parliament, hailed a “revolution of freedom and dignity” and promised that the RCD’s decades of dominance of the Tunisian state were at an end.

“We very much want to separate the state from the RCD,” he said. “There will be a complete break with the past.”

TWO FAMILIES

Ben Ali’s departure is seen as a victory by some of the humblest of Tunisians over its wealthiest and most powerful.

Mohamed Bouazizi, a vegetable seller, triggered the protests that drove Ben Ali from power when he set himself on fire because police had seized his vegetable cart.

“What kind of repression do you imagine it takes for a young man to do this?” his sister Leila asked at the family’s home in a rundown suburb. “Those with no connections and no money for bribes are humiliated and insulted and not allowed to live.”

In the Tunis suburb of Carthage, the coastal playground of Ben Ali’s elite has been eerily quiet since the flight of the feared clique Tunisians once whispered of as “The Family.” Ostentatious villas stand abandoned and vandalised.

On the wall of one opulent home belonging to Imed Trabelsi, a brother of Ben Ali’s wife, someone has scrawled of the dead vegetable seller: “Tunisia is free, Bouazizi is a hero.”

About 500 people protested in central Tunis on Wednesday, fewer than of late but still vocal: “We got rid of the dictator but not the dictatorship,” said Faydi Borni, a teacher. “We want rid of this government that shut us up for 30 years.”

However, others are eager for calm: “We’ve been living so long under pressure but maybe we should give the government a chance,” said one woman. “People will have a chance to vote.”

Four opposition appointees quit as ministers on Tuesday. A first cabinet meeting is scheduled for Thursday.

For all the rage at Ben Ali, some Tunisians seem ready to give Ghannouchi a chance to make good on promises of elections.

Mebazza said police had detained those responsible for violence last week, when dozens of people were killed: “There has been an improvement in security and we want more,” he said.

“I will do all I can and use all my powers so our country gets over this difficult situation and so that all legitimate hopes created by this noble uprising are realised.”

In a sign security was improving, state television said the nightly curfew imposed last week was shortened by three hours.

PRISONERS FREED

The last of Ben Ali’s political prisoners went free on Wednesday, including members of a banned Islamist group, said Najib Chebbi, an opposition figure named to the cabinet.

While authoritarian Arab rulers have long cited the threat of radical Islam to justify repression to their Western allies, levels of support for Tunisia’s Islamists are not clear.

Moncef Marzouki, an secular dissident back from exile in France, visited Bouazizi’s grave and called for a more independent figure to be named premier: “If the situation continues with a government built on this old dictatorship the situation will continue on the street,” he told Reuters.

Ghannouchi is striving to distance himself from Ben Ali. Chebbi said the ousted president had telephoned from Saudi Arabia to say he might come back, but Ben Ali told him his return was “impossible.”

Underlining international concern over Tunisia, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke to veteran 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.

The United Nations said it would send human rights advisers to Tunisia next week. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the new leaders must listen more to the people and hold free elections — something he said other Arab countries should also do.

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.

(Additional reporting by Lin Noueihed in Sidi Bouzid)

Writing by Alastair Macdonald

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