Ministers quit day-old Tunisian government

FOUR ministers quit Tunisia’s day-old government yesterday, undermining its hopes of quelling unrest by sharing power with members of the opposition to the old regime.

Those who resigned were opponents of deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s iron-fisted 23-year rule and had been named to the government on Monday. It was not immediately clear if the resignations could bring down the government, which has 40 full and junior ministers.

Clashes broke out in central Tunis around the time the resignations were announced, as police fought off protesters demanding the new cabinet be purged of the old guard that served Ben Ali.

Riot police in shielded helmets pummelled protesters to the ground with batons and boot kicks as other officers fired off tear gas grenades to disperse a crowd of several hundred demonstrators.

“I am afraid that our revolution will be stolen from me and my people. The people are asking for freedoms and this new government is not. They are the ones who oppressed the people for 22 years,” said Ines Mawdud, a 22-year-old student protester.

A month of unrest has devastated the Mediterranean nation’s tourist industry. Thousands of tourists have been evacuated.

Junior Minister for Transportation and Equipment Anouar Ben Gueddour said he had resigned along with Houssine Dimassi, the labour minister, and minister without portfolio Abdeljelil Bedoui.

The three ministers are all members of a top labour union, the UGTT, which is not a party but is a movement that acts like a lobby and has a big nationwide base to mobilise people around the country.

The group’s supporters staged the protest in central Tunis yesterday, calling for a general strike, constitutional changes and the release of all imprisoned union leaders.

Health Minister Mustapha Ben Jaafar of the FDLT opposition party also resigned, party member Hedi Raddaoui said. The culture minister, Moufida Tlatli said she was considering resigning but was consulting her supporters first.

Tunisia’s interim leaders have sought to stabilise the country after riots, looting and an apparent settling-of-scores after Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on Friday.

On a back street off Avenue Bourguiba, a key thoroughfare where the clashes took place, UGTT members waved union flags and cheering. One sign read “RCD out” in English — a reference to the party of Ben Ali.

Union leaders said protesters calling for the RCD to be disbanded held peaceful demonstrations in Sidi Bouzid, the city where virulent criticism of Ben Ali’s government first erupted last month, and two other towns.

Yesterday, political leader Moncef Marzouki returned from than 20 years of exile in France to a joyful reception at Tunis airport from his supporters.

Marzouki, a physician who leads the once-banned CPR party and wants to run for president, urged fellow Tunisians to hold firm in their efforts to bring down Ben Ali’s party.

“Don’t let anyone steal this blessed revolution from you,” said Marzouki. “Don’t waste the blood of our martyrs. We don’t want any revenge, but we are fast with our principle that this horrible party does not return.”

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