Tunisia faces teacher strike, protests against new government

Many Tunisians protested Monday to show their disapproval of the interim government – which includes members of the government of former President Ben Ali – while teachers went on strike.

By , Correspondent

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    Protestors march outside the prime minister's office during a demonstration in downtown Tunis, Jan. 24. Police used tear gas on protesters in central Tunis on Monday as pressure grew for the removal of government ministers linked to ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
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Teachers across Tunisia went on strike Monday, a day when many students intended to return to class after weeks of violent protests that brought down the government of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Protests against the interim government also turned violent Monday, with demonstrators hurling rocks and bottles at riot police, smashing police cars, and shattering windows at the Finance ministry. Police fired tear gas at protesters. Across Tunisia, many businesses remained shuttered, as fears of unrest jostled with hopes for a more democratic future.

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The actions of teachers, protesters, and nervous shopkeepers show that Tunisia is far from returning to business as usual, and that the interim government now faces a serious test of its staying power.

IN PICTURES: Tunisia riots

Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi took over after Mr. Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14. He is leading a caretaker government that mixes officials from the hated former government with new blood. Mr. Ghannouchi has pledged elections for a new government in six months, but many Tunisians don't seem willing to wait that long. They say new ministers have merely been co-opted into the new government as window dressing for what remains a corrupt and autocratic regime.

The teachers' union called for an indefinite strike to protest the inclusion in the transitional government of ministers from Ben Ali's regime. Classes had been canceled since Jan. 10, according to Le Monde. A teachers' union official said that on Monday most teachers nationwide appeared to have heeded the union's call and stayed away from classrooms, Agence France-Presse reported.

AFP reported that clashes began Monday after dozens of protesters moved against police lines outside the prime minister's office. Hundreds camped out overnight outside the office, despite a curfew.

"We will stay here until the government resigns and runs away like (ousted president Zine El Abidine) Ben Ali," a student identified as "Othmene" told AFP.

AFP called this a "make-or-break" week for the new government. Le Monde also said that Monday's protests and strikes would sorely test Ghannouchi's hastily assembled regime. The strike followed protests Sunday by thousands of union members, leftists, Islamists, and women and children against that government. (See video from Euronews.)

There were also growing signs Monday that some Tunisians want a return to normalcy and stability, despite the euphoria generated by the "Jasmine Revolution." One such person was parent Lamia Bouassida, who complained to AFP about the teachers' strike. "This strike is irresponsible. Our children are being held hostage," she said, after coming to a school in central Tunis to see if it was open.

According to the Tunisian daily La Presse de Tunisie, shopkeepers across the country are afraid to reopen for business. It quoted shopkeeper Mourad Lessoued as saying:

"Every day, I'm practically the only one to open my store early in the morning. Many shopkeepers still fear an escalation of violence. Everyone is still in shock. ... I think it would be better if my fellow merchants got back to business as usual to revive the activity of our souk.

Others also spoke out on the need to avoid more strikes and get the country back to business. Pediatrician Adel Belkadhi told La Presse de Tunisie:

"I'm asking myself, where is the people's patriotism? Do they think by going on strike they'll put the country on its feet again? Nobody's interested in anything except paralyzing our country. We need to get the economy going again. We're in an urgent situation, and I assure you that many of my lawyer, doctor and intellectual friends share my opinion. If we continue down this path, we're going to fall into a vicious circle and a spiral with no exit."

La Presse de Tunisie, along with other Tunisian media, is itself reporting freely for the first time in decades after journalists staged their own newsroom revolution and gave the paper's leaders their marching orders, according to the Los Angeles Times.

"We called the managing director and told him not to come in," said Samira Dami, a film critic who has just become one of the editors in chief of La Presse, Tunisia's 75-year-old French-language newspaper. "He represents the old regime, the one who writes good things for the regime and says everything is beautiful. He was a shoeshine boy."

Formerly, La Presse and other Tunisian media featured photos of Ben Ali on their front pages every day and ran fawning coverage of the ruling family.

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