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Tunisia unveils new government as calm returns

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi's national unity government includes opposition leaders and members of the deposed regime. Residents begin heading back to work and cleaning up debris from days of rioting, but some clashes continue.

January 18, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Tunis, Tunisia — Tunisians who last week faced down a dictator on Monday began the risky and arduous process of turning a revolt fueled by youthful anger into what they hope will be the rarity in the Arab world: genuine democracy.

The country's interim prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, announced a national unity government that includes three opposition leaders and members of the regime of President Zine el Abidine ben Ali, who was deposed Friday in a popular uprising.

Ghannouchi also announced several measures to help placate a protest movement that has seen dozens of deaths in the last month. The government will hold elections in six months, free political prisoners, lift restrictions on all political parties and civil society organizations and create special commissions to pursue political reform, investigate the violent actions of the former regime and ferret out corruption, he said.

Ghannouchi announced the abolition of the Ministry of Information, which had censored all media.

"We are committed to increasing efforts to bringing calm and peace to the hearts of all Tunisians," Ghannouchi said at a news conference at the ornately medieval government palace in the Casbah. "Our priority is security, as well as political and economic reform."

After weeks of violent protests, triggered by the self-immolation of a young graduate frustrated by the lack of economic opportunities, Tunisians overthrew Ben Ali, ending his 23-year authoritarian rule. The former leader and most of his family have fled abroad.

The popular revolt has inspired reformers and revolutionaries in Arab countries ruled by repressive and entrenched regimes.

In recent days, attempted self-immolations like the one in Tunisia have taken place in Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania. In Cairo, a 50-year-old man frustrated by difficult living conditions set himself on fire outside the Egyptian parliament Monday, the official news agency reported.

But even with Ben Ali gone, Tunisians face huge legal, political and security hurdles before they can establish a democracy.

Ghannouchi acknowledged the growing role of the army, which has been widely recognized as key to the uprising's success. One opposition figure close to the leaders of the transitional government said some army units' refusal to violently put down demonstrations in the western city of Thala led the military to turn on Ben Ali rather than risk civil war.

"Using the constitution to set up the transitional government helped us to guarantee the continuation of state institutions in order to avoid two threats: chaos, or a military coup d'etat," Abderrazak Kilani, head of Tunisia's bar association, said in an interview.

Ghannouchi declared that the ministers of Defense, Interior and Foreign Affairs from the old administration would retain their posts. Political insiders and opposition leaders described all three as relatively untainted by the corruption and repression that characterized Ben Ali's rule.

"The composition of the government is balanced," said Hamadi Redissi, a professor of political science and law in Tunis. "The members of the former regime are clean. They are more technocratic and professional than political."

But some Tunisians opposed the return of figures associated with the former government, fearing a return to power by Ben Ali or one of his adjutants, or a return to the status quo. In central Tunis, hundreds of demonstrators angry at the developments clashed with police, who fired tear gas and wielded batons.

Of the Cabinet members, only blogger Slim Amamou, who was imprisoned during the uprising, appears to represent the youthful movement that helped topple the regime.

Security remains the new government's No. 1 worry. The capital and other cities appeared calmer Monday. Gone were the hours of gunfire, the panicked phalanxes of policemen and the swirling helicopters, though a dusk-to-dawn curfew remained in place and sporadic shooting was reported in the capital and elsewhere.

After days of staying huddled in their homes, people began heading back to work, filling up sidewalks, trying to withdraw money from banks and cleaning up debris from the rioting and looting that accompanied the collapse of the regime. Many people accused Ben Ali loyalists, some of whom have been arrested, of causing trouble to try to encourage the return of his rule.

But many analysts also worried that Arab regimes frightened by Tunisia's uprising might interfere in the country's affairs, perhaps by unleashing militant groups.

Supporters of Tunisia's uprising said they feared any designs by their neighbors but also felt elated by the prospect of establishing a precedent that could change the Arab world.

"What is obvious is that this revolution makes other Arab regimes afraid, because their fear is there would be a democratic system in Tunisia that would be seen as a model by their populations," Kilani said. "They don't see this in a good way. If they want to create chaos, they can."

daragahi@latimes.com

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