TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian riot police broke up a protest camp in the capital on Friday, hoping to end days of demonstrations against a government that has undergone a major overhaul to meet some of the crowds’ demands.
The assault on the round-the-clock sit-in came a day after Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi replaced 12 cabinet ministers in an attempt to placate protesters demanding a purge of all members of the former ruling party.
The reshuffle won the backing of Tunisia’s powerful labour union, which had organised protests and strikes around the country, but failed to satisfy several hundred young men who had travelled from the grim cities of the interior to make their voice heard in the capital.
Tawfik Ayachi, a journalist and political commentator, said protesters no longer had “absolute popular support” and the move signalled the government’s intention to put a halt to protests.
He said the changes in the interim government had met the demands of most of the people: “The consensus around it will grow.”
At least one anti-government protest called in Tunis failed to materialise.
Police and soldiers tore down tents and removed bedding outside government offices on the fifth day of the sit-in and chased protesters through the streets after scattering them with teargas. Witnesses said several people had been beaten but hospitals had no word on injuries.
The encampment had cut off access to the city’s casbah, or old city, snarling traffic, causing havoc for shopkeepers and contributing to what Ayachi said was growing friction between the protesters and residents of the capital.
The weeks of demonstrations across Tunisia that toppled President Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali electrified Arabs across the Middle East.
Ben Ali fled the country on January 14 after 23 years of police rule and an interim government including three opposition politicians and three unionists was set up to lead the country to its first democratic elections.
Since then, Tunisians have been divided between those who demanded the government be purged of all symbols of the old regime and those who felt life should return to normal.
Thursday’s new line-up, which removed all the old guard except Ghannouchi, prime minister for years under Ben Ali, helped swing public opinion away from hard-line protesters.
“I feel this is an improvement. Lots of doors that were closed have been opened. The ones making the noise have a brother or someone who died so they are upset,” said Raed Chawishi, 24, outside the prime minister’s office.
Tunisia’s uprising has electrified Arabs across the Middle East and North Africa, where many countries share the complaints of poor living standards and authoritarian rule.
Inspired by Tunisia’s example, tens of thousands of Egyptians have taken to the streets to demand an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.
Tunisians protested outside the Egyptian embassy in Tunis, calling for the overthrow of Mubarak and other Arab leaders.
“Hosni Mubarak must fall,” some protesters chanted.
One protester held up a placard reading: “We made it, U can make it too.”
Protests have also spread to Yemen, where thousands took to the streets to demand a change of government.
Seeing how fast their protests ended 23 years of oppressive rule, Tunisians have used public gatherings to make all sorts of demands. Doctors gathered outside the health ministry on Friday and employees from all walks of life have demonstrated to demand better living conditions.
About 200 people marched through central Tunis after Friday prayers to demand religious freedom, the first significant protest by Islamists since the overthrow of Ben Ali, who ran a strictly secular state.
Some carried placards reading: “We want freedom for the hijab, the niqab and the beard.”
Under Ben Ali’s rule, women who covered their hair by wearing the hijab, in the Muslim tradition, were denied jobs or education. Men with long beards were stopped by police.
“We demand the revision of the terrorism law ... and say no to the war on the niqab,” one woman told Reuters TV, her face entirely covered by a black veil, or niqab.
Islamists played no visible part in the “Jasmine Revolution” that toppled Ben Ali, but when the Ennahda, the country’s largest Islamist movement, was allowed to contest elections in 1989, it came second to the ruling party.
In Brussels, diplomats said European Union foreign ministers were expected to agree on Monday to freeze Ben Ali’s assets and offer Tunisia better trade terms.
Additional reporting by Tarek Amara and Zohra Bensemra; writing by Giles Elgood; editing by Tim Pearce