Tunisia's opposition defends unity government as pressure mounts

Protesters from Tunisia's interior – where the revolution started – arrived in the capital yesterday, significantly increasing the pressure on the week-old unity government.

Christophe Ena/AP
A protester shouts slogans as he holds a caricatured photo of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, during a demonstration in Tunis, Monday, Jan. 24. The protesters are angry that holdovers from Ben Ali's regime hold leading posts in the interim government in place since last week.

Tunisia's opposition leaders appear to have miscalculated by rushing into a unity government that many people will not accept, as protests Monday demonstrated that public anger has not subsided.

Exiles and protesters from Tunisia's interior, where the revolution began, have converged on the capital, adding significant pressure on the week-old government. Though a month of protests forced former President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali to flee, Tunisians are angry that remnants of his regime remain – including media censorship, the jailing of political prisoners, and a new unity government filled with former members of his party.

“It’s not a unity government, it’s a fake unity government,” says Moncef Marzouki, a political activist who returned to Tunisia last week after living in exile in Paris for 10 years. “Could you imagine in East Germany, after the fall of the wall, the communist party would say, ‘Hi, we’re still in power, we’re in control but you can have a few seats in the government?' ”

Dr. Marzouki, who said he would likely run for president in the coming elections, says Tunisia needs wholesale change that the current government is incapable of.

“From the beginning, this government wasn’t accepted by the people,” he says. “What the Tunisians want is the dissolution of the RCD [Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally], new political parties, new elected parliament, real elections, a new constitution, and new electoral laws. We want to throw away all the laws that protect the dictatorship.”

Severing ties with old regime may hold risks

Maya Jribi, head of the opposition Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), says those are the goals of the unity government, but that it can’t accomplish them by instantly throwing out everyone associated with Mr. Ben Ali.

“Constitutionally, the government doesn’t cut off all relations with the old system, but politically it does,” she says. “Even though there are still people from the old regime, politically they have changed. Cutting all relations with the past and the old regime is dangerous and could be harmful for the future of democracy in Tunisia.”

The new government is tasked with overseeing new elections and managing commissions to investigate government corruption and the killing of protesters at the hands of police during the month of protests.

Opposition party members who have joined the government say the inclusion of the old guard is necessary to preserve stability and continuity until new elections, expected to be held within six months.

TV station taken off air, political prisoners yet to be freed

But protesters are angry that much of the political system built by Ben Ali – and the residual effects of it – remains intact.

Though government censorship on newspapers has largely evaporated, on Monday police arrested the head of a popular private television channel, accused him of treason, and took the station off the air. And while the government says it has freed the political prisoners of Ben Ali’s regime, advocates say hundreds are still in jail.

Samir Ben Amor, head of the International Association for Support of Political Prisoners, says that only about 200 prisoners were released, and between 300 and 800 political prisoners are still being held. Most of those who were released had cases that were still pending, while those still imprisoned had already been convicted, he says.

“The government doesn’t tell the truth,” he says. “These were lies from the government and we’re still suffering from this government. We consider it a version of the old government, just wearing nicer clothes.”

Mr. Ben Amor, a weary looking man with dark circles under his eyes, fields a call from the mother of a political prisoner, asking why her son is not home when the officials on TV say political prisoners have been released.

He says that at least 150 prisoners have been killed since the government changed hands, many in violence he says was incited by remnants of Ben Ali’s security forces who wanted to foment chaos. Prisoners live in desperate conditions without regular food or medicine, he says.

Lack of forgiveness

Many of Tunisia’s political prisoners are convicted using a counterterrorism law, often using coerced confessions or simply false evidence. Ben Ali, who crushed a nascent Islamist movement in the 1990s, frequently used the threat of Islamic extremism as a reason to flex the muscles of his huge security apparatus.

“Many of them had been given false convictions. The only thing that made them go to jail was having a long beard, wearing traditional clothes, or refusing to cooperate with security,” says Ben Amor. “Their cases don’t have any official proof for any crime they had done. In Tunisia, we have terrorists without terrorism.”

He is trying to pressure the new government to issue an amnesty to both release the prisoners and clear their records. “It’s very important to turn the page radically and completely so we can start a new page and these people can rebuild their lives,” he says. But he is not confident the new government will do so.

“How can we give a chance to the old members of the regime, and not take them to the courts, while we don’t forgive these people who are victims of the old regime?”

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