Why Tunisia's interim government may not fly with protesters

Tunisia's prime minister announced an interim government that will include members of the opposition but also of the old regime. Hundreds of Tunisians took to the capital's streets again Monday in protest.

By , Correspondent

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    Tunisian Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi announces an interim government in Tunis, Monday. Ghannouchi, a longtime ally of outsted president Ben Ali, and several top ministers retained their posts in the shake-up, and at least one top opposition leader was expected to join the government.
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Tunisia’s prime minister announced the formation of an interim unity government Monday that includes figures from the previous regime, as protesters thronged the streets to reject it.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi said the previous ministers of Interior, Defense, Foreign Affairs, and Finance would keep their jobs. Other posts were given to opposition leaders and independents, and one to a prominent blogger.

Mr. Ghannouchi also announced that the transitional government would create committees to investigate corruption and the events of the “last period.” He pledged that it would free all political prisoners, ensure freedom of expression, allow new political parties to be formed, and welcome international monitors at the upcoming elections. Al Arabiya reported that Ghannouchi said elections would take place within six months, not the two-months time frame suggested earlier.

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The government will “partition the state from all the political parties and guarantee the neutrality of the administration,” Ghannouchi said at a news conference. "We are committed to intensifying our efforts to reestablish calm and peace in the hearts of all Tunisians. Our priority is security, as well as political and economic reform."

Tunisia’s president for 23 years, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, fled the country Friday, toppled by four weeks of popular protests against rising unemployment, government corruption, and political repression. While Tunisians are joyful he has gone, they are skeptical of Monday’s announcement.

Protesters in the heart of the capital, Tunis, rejected the idea of any government that included members of the former president’s circle. Hundreds gathered on Tunis’s central avenue, shouting slogans against the RCD, the party of Mr. Ben Ali and Ghannouchi. Police let the protest build before firing on demonstrators with a water cannon and then with tear gas. The demonstrators scattered, then reconvened to shout louder than before, calling Ghannouchi a dog.

Many of the people at today's protest were from leftist parties, such as the Communist party, that had been outlawed by Ben Ali and were not included in the new transitional government.

“This government represents [Ben Ali],” said Siwar, a young woman who held a sign that said “RCD out!” She had come from Kef, in northwestern Tunisia, to express her opposition to any government that includes members of the RCD. “They represent 23 years of oppression. If the opposition is participating in this government, this opposition doesn’t represent the people,” she said. “We want a real opposition, real representatives of the people, and we want the RCD to go.”

Moments later, the protesters dispersed in panic, rushing down side streets as the police fired tear gas, then began beating people with batons.

From the start, the mass uprising that toppled Ben Ali – the first time such protests have displaced a leader in the Arab world in generations – has been a popular and spontaneous movement. It was not organized by politicians and doesn’t have a leader. And it is unclear whether the opposition will succeed in harnessing the surge of popular passion.

“The people are driving things. This, from Day 1, has been a popular expression of frustration,” says a Western diplomat. “Trade unions, political parties, are all trying to play catch-up and have been throughout. That's part of the tragedy of the situation here, because there's been so much squeezing of the political space … there isn't a real viable political class.”

A lack of experienced leaders after a half-century of one-party rule is one reason why some say that previous government ministers should remain.

“There is a need for continuity,” says Mahmoud ben Romdhane, a former leader of Amnesty International and member of the Ettajdid party, which gained a ministerial post Monday. He called the ministers retained from the previous government “technocrats” who knew how to run a government.

What is most important about the new government, he says, are the new freedoms promised and the commissions created to investigate corruption and the Ben Ali government’s response to the protests, in which dozens of demonstrators were shot by police.

He says the fact that the commissions will be led by prominent and respected human rights figures is a promising sign, noting that such changes are more important than the makeup of the transitional government.

“The members of the former government are not at all symbolic figures of the old regime. The government was to a large extent a technical body,” he argues. “We understand that the people want to have a new minister, a new government. But we also need to have security and continuity.”

For some of the protesters Monday, the opposition’s participation in a unity government with old-guard figures has tainted its credibility. “The opposition is just decor,” says one man who refuses to give his name. “They don’t represent us.”

But security is certainly on the minds of Tunisians. The days after Ben Ali fled were filled with widespread chaos, looting, and gun battles between the military and what appear to be members of Ben Ali’s security forces. Gunfire can still be heard occasionally in Tunis, and tanks are on the streets.

Though the once-deserted streets were filled with people and cars again Monday, and shops that had remained shuttered since Friday began opening, people said they still had trouble finding bread and milk. Long queues formed at bakeries, and a Monoprixe supermarket that opened for the first time since last week was mobbed with customers.

But the coming days will tell whether the public will accept a transitional government that includes members of the regime they revolted against, or whether they will decide to use their newfound veto power. One of the revelations of the past month for Tunisians has been just how powerful “people power” is.

“We don’t have to accept any government,” says one protester. “We know now that we have the power to say no.”

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