Tunisia's PM Ghannouchi quits amid new protests for real change

Tunisian Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi’s resigned Sunday, showing that Tunisian protesters won't stop until their revolution brings the change they demand.

Hassene Dridi/AP
Tunisian Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi gestures as he announces his resignation during a press conference in Tunis, Sunday. Tunisia's embattled prime minister said is bowing to a key demand of protesters after at least five people died in a groundswell of new unrest in this North African country.

Tunisia’s Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi announced his resignation Sunday, responding to more than a month of demonstrations by protesters who said they did not want to be ruled by a crony of the president they ousted in a popular uprising.

His announcement came after the largest protests yet since former President Ben Ali fled for Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14, his capitulation beginning a wave of uprisings from Libya to Oman.

Around 100,000 people descended on the capital, Tunis on Friday demanding that Mr. Ghannouchi resign, and five people were killed in the demonstrations on Saturday, according to the government.

Ghannouchi’s departure illustrates that the people power Tunisians discovered in January did not disappear with Ben Ali, and they will continue to deploy it if they are dissatisfied with their government.

It's unclear whether the staying power of Tunisia's revolution will trigger a second round of mass protests in fellow Arab countries already inspired by Tunisians' ability to oust their longtime dictator. But protesters in Egypt will take Ghannouchi's resignation as encouragement to keep fighting in their own struggle to displace a prime minister appointed by now-deposed President Hosni Mubarak, and to ensure that his toppling brings far-reaching and systematic change.

Why Ghannouchi quit

"I am not ready to be the person who takes decisions that would end up causing casualties," Ghannouchi said as he announced his resignation.

The turn toward violence in protests over the weekend came after they had been largely peaceful for weeks. Tunisia’s interim president, Fouad Mebazaa, said Sunday that former government minister Beji Caid Essebsi would take up the post of prime minister. The government is expected to hold elections by July.

Ghannouchi, who Mr. Mebazaa appointed prime minister shortly after Ben Ali’s departure, soon became the new focal point of anger for the protesters who had forced out the president. He had worked in Ben Ali’s government since 1999. Though many thought he was not tainted by the incredible corruption and brutal oppression that marked Ben Ali’s regime, the protesters didn’t buy it. They accused him of being a member of the former president’s inner circle, and said their revolution was not finished until they had achieved a total break with the past.

Tension will ease, for now

Now that one of their main demands has been met, the protests in Tunisia may abate, says Kamel Labidi, a veteran Tunisian journalist and human rights campaigner.

“I think it’s going to ease tension,” he says. “In the coming days, there will be fewer protests. But the problem is, there’s a lack of communication on the part of the political parties and the government. And the protesters have no leader.”

The government has accused troublemakers of stirring up violence during recent protests.

Mr. Labidi says an eyewitness told him they watched a gang of youths on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, Tunis’s main boulevard, attacking people and stores and destroying property during the protests over the weekend.

He says rising crime throughout Tunisia, which many suspect is perpetrated by Ben Ali loyalists or others who don’t want to see true change in Tunisia, is “creating a feeling of insecurity” in the country.

In his resignation speech, Ghannouchi said security forces had seized $60,000 believed to be intended to use to pay men to make trouble in Tunis. It is unclear if the interim government, struggling just to maintain legitimacy, will be able to ensure security and stability.

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