By Bouazza Ben Bouazza and Elaine Ganley /AP
TUNIS: Tunisia’s prime minister announced a national unity government on Monday, hoping to quell simmering unrest following the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali amid huge street protests.
Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, a longtime ally of Ben Ali, and several top ministers retained their posts in the shake-up — and at least one top opposition leader was expected to join the government.
The moved comes amid continued unrest in the North African country after Ben Ali fled the North African country on Friday — 23 years after he first took power.
Ghannouchi, who has been premier since 1999 and has kept his post throughout the upheaval, said the current ministers of defense, interior and foreign affairs would keep their posts.
Three opposition figures, including Nejib Chebbi, a founder of the opposition PDP party, will take up posts in the government — a breakthrough in a country that the autocratic Ben Ali led for more than two decades.
Many opponents of Ben Ali’s rule have taken to the streets to express their hopes that the new government would not include of any remnants of his iron-fisted regime.
Earlier Monday, security forces fired tear gas to repel angry demonstrators ahead of the announcement of the new government. Some protesters demaned Ben Ali’s former cronies be locked out.
Helicopters swirled overhead at the demonstration in central Tunis as authorities haltingly tried to stabilize the North African nation after days of unrest. There were also unconfirmed reports of the arrest or killing of gunmen behind shooting rampages since autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on Friday.
“Ben Ali must be judged,” read one sign in English at the demonstration, whose protesters soon dispersed. Some were demanding that Ben Ali’s ruling party be locked out of any future power-sharing arrangement.
Many Tunisians were hopeful about the first new government in 23 years but wary of what the future may hold.
The European Union said Monday it stands ready to help Tunisia become a democracy and will offer economic aid. EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said the 27-nation bloc is willing to “prepare and organize the electoral process” in Tunisia.
Finance Minister Christine Lagarde of France — a former colonial overseer of Tunisia — told French radio that Paris is keeping a close watch on the assets of Tunisians in French banks.
Shops in the center of Tunis remained shuttered Monday, and police were deployed in force. A semblance of normal daily life returned in other areas of the capital where shops, gas stations, pharmacies and supermarkets reopened. Many people returned to their jobs and others rushed to buy scarce stables like bread, fish and milk.
Hundreds of stranded tourists were still being evacuated from the country, and foreign airlines gradually resumed the flights that were halted when Tunisian airspace closed amid the upheaval.
The constitution requires elections in 60 days after the departure of a leader, but one opposition leader told The Associated Press that Tunisian authorities could announce presidential elections in the next six months instead.
The opposition PDP party has pushed for a later timetable because its leaders feel Tunisians need time to familiarize themselves with the parties so elections can be credible after decades of one-party rule, the official said.
Nejib Chebbi, a PDP founder and its longtime leader, and two other leaders of opposition parties are expected to gain posts in the new government along with some members of Ben Ali’s former regime, the party official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Moncef Marzouki, a professor of medicine who leads the once-banned CPR party from exile in France where he has lived for the last 20 years, told France-Info radio he would be a candidate in the presidential election.
“The question is whether there will be or won’t be free and fair elections,” said Marzouki, whose movement is of the secular left.
Whatever emerges, the new leadership will first face the challenge of restoring order. Looting, gunbattles, and score-settling have roiled the country since Friday, when a month of street protests against years of repression, corruption and a lack of jobs brought down Ben Ali.
Over the weekend, police arrested dozens of people, including the top presidential security chief, as tensions appeared to mount between Tunisians buoyant over Ben Ali’s ouster and loyalists in danger of losing many perks.
Ex-presidential security chief Ali Seriati and his deputy were charged with a plot against state security, aggressive acts and for “provoking disorder, murder and pillaging,” the TAP state news agency reported.
Fierce gunbattles broke out between the two groups around the presidential palace Sunday in Carthage on the Mediterranean shore, north of Tunis and near the Interior Ministry in the capital.
“We won’t be tolerant towards these people,” Ghannouchi said.
The protests began last month after an educated but jobless 26-year-old set himself on fire when police confiscated the fruits and vegetables he was selling without a permit. His desperate act — from which he later died — hit a nerve, sparked copycat suicides and focused anger against the regime into a widespread revolt.
In Cairo, an Egyptian man set himself on fire Monday outside the country’s parliament, security officials said, an apparent protest emulating the self-immolation in Tunisia.
The downfall of the 74-year-old Ben Ali, who had taken power in a bloodless coup in 1987, served as a warning to other autocratic leaders in the Arab world. His Mediterranean nation, an ally in the US fight against terrorism and a popular tourist destination known for its wide beaches, deserts and ancient ruins, had seemed more stable than many in the region.
–Associated Press Writer Raf Casert in Brussels, Hamza Hendawi in Cairo and Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.