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Reforms promised in Tunisia, but protesters aren’t appeased

Calls to banish ruling party point to troubles ahead

Protesters came face-to-face with soldiers during a demonstration in Tunis yesterday. The Tunisian government said that 78 civilians have died during a month of unrest. Protesters came face-to-face with soldiers during a demonstration in Tunis yesterday. The Tunisian government said that 78 civilians have died during a month of unrest. (Zoubeir Souissi/ Reuters)
By Bouazza Ben Bouazza
Associated Press / January 18, 2011

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TUNIS — Tunisia took a step toward democracy and reconciliation yesterday, promising to free political prisoners and opening its government to opposition forces long shut out of power, but the old guard retained the key posts, angering protesters.

Demonstrators carrying signs reading “Get Out!’’ demanded that the former ruling party be banished, a sign more troubles lie ahead for the new unity government as security forces struggled to contain violent reprisals, shootings, and lootings three days after the country’s longtime president fled under pressure from the streets.

“We’re afraid that the president has left, but the powers-that-be remain,’’ said Hylel Belhassen, 51, an insurance salesman.

Even before the new government was announced yesterday, security forces fired tear gas to repel demonstrators who see the change of power as Tunisia’s first real chance at democracy.

President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled Friday to Saudi Arabia after a month of protests over unemployment and corruption led to his downfall after 23 years in power. The government said yesterday that 78 civilians have died in the month of unrest, an announcement that underlined the depth of the violence in the usually placid Mediterranean tourist destination.

Under autocratic Ben Ali, Tunisia was effectively under one-party rule. The new government includes three ministers from the opposition — a first in Tunisia — but members of Ben Ali’s RCD party kept most of the jobs, including the most important posts.

Nearby nations faced a wave of self-immolation attempts yesterday, apparently influenced by the desperate Tunisian man who set himself on fire a month ago, sparking the protests that brought his president down.

In Tunisia, hundreds of stranded tourists were still being evacuated from the country, and foreign airlines gradually resumed flights that were halted when Tunisian airspace closed amid the upheaval.

Besides the 78 civilians killed in the protests, a jump from the previous official death toll of 23, Interior Minister Ahmed Friaa said 94 civilians were injured. The new figures do not include members of security forces, some of whom also died, Friaa said.

The troubles have hit the tourist-based Tunisian economy, which Friaa said has lost $2 billion because of the unrest.

Streets of the capital appeared calmer yesterday but police were posted on most corners in downtown Tunis, with busloads of forces waiting to deploy along some streets. Most shops remained shut.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi offered a number of concessions to try to appease Ben Ali’s critics, while maintaining the ruling party’s dominance of government and public posts around the country.

Ghannouchi, a longtime Ben Ali ally who has been premier since 1999, retained his post, as did the ministers of defense, interior, and foreign affairs.

Three opposition figures, including Nejib Chebbi, a founder of the opposition PDP party, will take up posts in the new government. More significantly, Ghannouchi pledged such measures as freeing political prisoners and lifting restrictions on a leading human rights group, the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights. He said the government would create three state commissions to study political reform, investigate corruption and bribery, and examine abuses during the recent upheaval.

At least one union leader said the changes were not enough and predicted protests would continue until all ruling party figures had been swept from power. The RCD “left by the back door and is coming back through the window,’’ said Habib Jerjir of the Regional Workers’ Union of Tunis.

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