A Tunisian woman reacts during a demonstration in Tunis against the Constitutional… (Thibault Camus, Associated…)
Reporting from Tunis, Tunisia — The country's former ruling party announced the dissolution of its leadership committee and has voiced support for the new government, state television reported Thursday, as thousands rallied against the party in the capital and other cities.
The national unity government also approved a blanket amnesty law for outlawed political parties and exiled dissidents, state television reported. In addition, all Cabinet members who were members of the former ruling party resigned from it.
For 23 years, President Zine el Abidine ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally held sway over political and public life in Tunisia. A popular uprising sent him and his family fleeing abroad Friday. But members of the former ruling party, known by the initials RCD, have retained key ministerial posts and the presidency of the transitional government, which has pledged to hold new elections in six months.
Leaders of the new government say they need the former RCD members' expertise and that a measure of continuity will help maintain the nation's stability. But the officials' continued presence has outraged many Tunisians, who have been gathering for daily demonstrations in the capital and other cities, leading to the departure of four Cabinet members who disagreed with the controversial figures' inclusion.
Officials have tried to placate the anger. President Fouad Mebazaa and Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, both former RCD members, have resigned from their party posts. The RCD itself called on its members to abide by "the principles of the people's revolution and in honor of its pious martyrs," a reference to the 72 mostly young men killed by Ben Ali's security forces during weeks of protests.
But many Tunisians remained unconvinced. On Thursday, several thousand people swarmed in front of the former ruling party's headquarters in Tunis, where police fired warning shots to disperse demonstrators. They also protested in the cities of Sfax; Kebili; Gabes; Medinine; Gafsa, site of a 2008 mining strike that electrified the nation; and Sidi Bouzid, where a young man's self-immolation last month over economic hardships triggered the uprising, according to the official Tunis Afrique Presse, or TAP, news agency.
The protesters are demanding the dissolution of the RCD and the purging of its members from the Cabinet, which was huddled much of the day in discussions over the future of the country. Most Tunisians appear to favor eventually ridding the Cabinet of former regime figures, but for now only a vocal and mostly peaceful minority have taken to the streets to demand their immediate dismissal.
Meanwhile, authorities have been hunting down former regime stalwarts still in the country and pressuring Western nations to freeze the assets of Ben Ali and his family.
State television Thursday announced the arrest of Abdallah Kallel, a member of the RCD, on accusations of torture. A day earlier, it announced the arrest of 33 members of Ben Ali's family, but did not mention who they were or when they were arrested.
One official of an international organization that works closely with Tunisian opposition parties predicted that the transitional government would eventually have to drop some of the RCD members. "The symbolism really upsets most Tunisians," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. "Some new names are being thrown out and new faces are being considered."
But some have warned of the consequences of totally purging a political party with roots that stretch back to the 1930s and led the post-World War II independence movement against France.
"People have made a big fuss about the party, but in fact the party doesn't mean so much," said businessman Joseph Roger Bismuth, a member of Tunisia's 114-seat upper house of parliament and a party member. "Some people who were really involved in the wrongdoing of Ben Ali must be taken care of, but others never gained anything from being in the party. It's a bad step for democracy to just decide to suppress the party."
Some observers drew ominous parallels with Iraq, where a drive to purge former leader Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from power helped fuel an insurgency.
"I don't think de-Baathification worked all that well in Iraq," said a Western official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In addition to maintaining security, he said. "this government has one job … to arrange for transparent and credible elections."