News / Middle East

Resignations Hit Tunisia's Coalition as Thousands Protest

President Fouad Mebazza (l), and Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi attend the cabinet oath-taking ceremony in Tunis, Jan 18 2011
President Fouad Mebazza (l), and Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi attend the cabinet oath-taking ceremony in Tunis, Jan 18 2011

Related video report by Chris Simkins

At least four opposition ministers have quit Tunisia's day-old unity government, aligning themselves with demonstrators who insist democratic change is impossible while so many supporters of the ousted president remain in power.

Thousands protested across the north African nation Tuesday, calling for President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's Democratic Constitutional Rally party to be shut out of the government. Riot police fired tear gas in the capital, Tunis.

Key players in Tunisia

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali

Ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ruled Tunisia for more than two decades. He fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14.

Mohamed Ghannouchi

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi is a close ally of the ousted president. He announced a new unity government this week.

Fouad Mebazaa

Fouad Mebazaa was sworn in as Tunisia's interim president last week. H previously served as the speaker of parliament.

Najib Chebbi

Najib Chebbi is the founder of the largest and most credible opposition group, the Progressive Democratic Party.

Moncek Marzouki

Moncek Marzouki is the head of the small Congress for the Republic party. The formerly exiled political activist and opposition leader returned to the country Tuesday.

Rachid Ghannouchi

Rachid Ghannouchi is the exiled leader of the outlawed Ennahdha Islamic fundamentalist movement.  In 1992, a Tunisian military court sentenced him to life in prison on a conviction of plotting to overthrow the government.  He has been living in Britain but has indicated he may now return to Tunisia.  He is no relation to the prime minister by the same last name.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi insisted in a radio interview with the French Europe 1 broadcaster that ministers in the new government remaining from the former regime have "clean hands" and great competence. He suggested that experienced officials are needed in a caretaker government to guide the country before free elections are held.

In an attempt to mollify protesters and distance themselves from Mr. Ben Ali, the prime minister and interim President Fouad Mebazza resigned from the ruling RCD on Tuesday. State media reported the party also expelled Mr. Ben Ali, its founder.

Officials with the country's main labor union, the UGTT, said its three newly appointed ministers had withdrawn because the movement will not recognize the new government. Tunisia's health minister, who is from the opposition FDLT party, also resigned.

The United States welcomed reforms announced by the new government, including media freedoms and the liberation of all political prisoners, but said political change in the Arab state must broaden and deepen.

U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also urged "broad-based consultations" to establish an inclusive interim government.

On Monday, Mr. Ghannouchi announced a coalition Cabinet that includes the current ministers of defense, interior, foreign affairs and finance. He announced lower-level Cabinet positions for several opposition figures.

The announcement came after former president Ben Ali fled the country Friday after a month of protests and rioting sparked by widespread unemployment and high food prices. His departure ended more than two decades of authoritarian rule.

The capital remains occupied by tanks and heavily armed riot police, while many stores and businesses are closed. A ban on public assemblies is in place, as well as a strict nighttime curfew.

Tunisia's Interior Ministry said Monday that 78 people have died in the month-long violence. The government previously put the number of fatalities at 23. Unofficial estimates put the death toll at around 100.

Separately, supporters of formerly exiled opposition leader Moncek Marzouki greeted him Tuesday as he arrived in the country from Paris. The head of the Congress for the Republic party says he is considering running for president.

Prime Minister Ghannouchi said Tunisia will work toward transparent, fair elections under the supervision of international observers.  A presidential poll is to be held within 60 days.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.

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