Tunisia's old guard continues to wither as protesters demand clean slate

Tunisian protesters climbed atop the headquarters of the ruling RCD party and tore down its sign – a symbolic show of anger as the country's new government met for the first time today.

Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters
A protester gestures beside a Tunisian flag in front of the headquarters of the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party of ousted president Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali during a demonstration in downtown Tunis, Jan. 20.

Tunisia's new government met today for the first time, taking initial steps toward distancing itself from old regime and the ruling party that so heavily influenced it.

The old-guard members of the government, pressured by the public anger that they remain in power after the uprising, resigned from the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), the party of ousted president Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali.

They also joined with other government ministers in recognizing banned parties and granting amnesty to political prisoners, a modest step toward a more open political process that had long been controlled by the RCD.

Tunisian protesters have not been satisfied with the toppling of Mr. Ben Ali, insisting that the country be given a clean slate. On Thursday, more than 1,000 people gathered in front of the headquarters of the former ruling party, which earlier had dissolved its central committee.

Jubilant cheers as men tear down RCD sign

But instead of the tense clashes with police that have characterized protests this week, this demonstration exuded an atmosphere of confident anger. Police, who have dealt violently with protesters in the past month, stood back, and it was instead the Army, trusted and beloved by Tunisians, that held back the people as the throng pushed against the gates to the RCD headquarters.

The crowd held signs saying “RCD Out!” and sang, “When a people aspire to live, destiny is doomed to comply, darkness is forced to dissipate and chains are forced to break loose,” a line from Tunisia’s national anthem.

Huge, jubilant cheers erupted from the crowd when men on top of the soaring building tore the party’s red sign from its moorings and dropped it to the ground below. As it fell through the air, protesters whistled and screamed in elation. They roared again when men used steel cables to rip the party’s gold lettering from the building facade. Demonstrators scrambled to grab the letters, breaking them into pieces to keep as souvenirs of the historical moment. The Army fired into the air to keep the surging crowd back.

“What’s going on here is going to be taught in history lessons,” says Fathy Yacoubi, one of the protesters. “It’s a lesson in democracy for the whole world.”

And though it felt like a momentous occasion, the removal of a mere sign is not likely to satisfy them. “There is no head of a mafia without a mafia, and that is why we’re fighting the current government,” said Najah Mahjub, another protester. “They have to make us forgive 23 years of corruption.”

Risk of a military takeover

The government ministers’ resignation from the RCD shows “the willingness of the government to understand the situation and the anger in this country,” says Mahmoud Ben Romdhane, a leading member of opposition party Ettajdid.

The important next step for the cabinet, he says, is to remove the vestiges of RCD control from government administration, partitioning political parties and the government, and to prepare for elections, which will be held in six months.

Dr. Romdhane warns that if stability does not improve – large demonstrations were also reported in the towns of Gafsa and Kef on Thursday – Tunisia could be at risk for a military takeover. “If there is no stability, the risk is that we move from civil power to military power,” he says.

Leftists, Islamists now free to run for office

The cabinet met without five ministers who have resigned in protest at the inclusion of RCD figures. A junior minister stepped down Thursday, joining four who left the day after it was formed.

The cabinet’s decision to allow all political parties will mean that the leftist and Islamist parties banned by Ben Ali will be able to contest in the upcoming elections, which the government has promised to hold within six months. Government officials said this week that political prisoners were freed.

The government also declared three days of national mourning, beginning Friday, for those killed in the uprising. The United Nations said that at least 100 people had died in the four weeks of protests, some when police opened fire on demonstrators.

Wednesday state television said the security forces had arrested 33 members of Ben Ali’s family, who were widely seen as corrupt. The station also showed footage of jewelry and international credit cards seized from the family. Switzerland has already moved to freeze the former leader’s assets, and the rest of the EU will follow suit, according to media reports.

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