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Tunisian interim prime minister unveils national coalition government

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 17, 2011; 5:43 PM

TUNIS - Tunisia's interim prime minister on Monday unveiled a national coalition government that included three opposition leaders in an effort to bring stability to this North African nation in the aftermath of a popular uprising that ousted its autocratic ruler and sent shockwaves across the Middle East.

But it remains to be seen whether the limited changes will satisfy Tunisia's discontented masses and prevent them taking to the streets again. Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, a staunch ally of deposed president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and several top ministers in the ruling party will retain their posts in the new government.

At a press conference Monday, Ghannouchi said the new government was serious about "bringing calm and peace to the hearts of all Tunisians."

He vowed to usher in political and economic reforms, including releasing political prisoners, removing restrictions on human rights activists and recognizing all nongovernmental organizations that seek to operate inside the country. Ghannouchi also declared that the government would create commissions to investigate corruption and state-sponsored abuses committed during the months of protests.

"For the first time in 55 years, the monopoly of this regime is broken," said Nejib Chebbi, the leader of the opposition Progressive Democratic Party and the new minister of regional development. "The ruling party is forced to share the power. This is a guarantee the agenda of reform will be carried forward."

After weeks of streets protests, Ben Ali and his family fled to Saudi Arabia last week, effectively ending his 23-year-rule. It marked the first time that such demonstrations had toppled an Arab despot and raised hopes across the region that Tunisia could not only become the first real Arab democracy but also inspire transformation in other autocratic regimes across the Arab world.

Since the fall of Ben Ali, Tunisia has had two leaders. Ghannouchi was the first to take over, but he then abruptly surrendered to Fouad Mebazaa, the parliamentary speaker, complying with rules set by Tunisia's constitution. Mebazaa is now the interim president until new elections are held, expected within two months.

Monday's appointment of the three opposition leaders was a major breakthrough in a nation ruled with a tight fist and strong security apparatus for more than two decades. But Ghannouchi, who has been prime minister since 1999, said that the shake-up would not include the key ministries of defense, interior and foreign affairs - positions that are held by Ben Ali's allies.

Hundreds of protesters took to the streets Monday, demanding that the entire ruling party be wiped away from the government, according to news reports here. As the protesters surged to the Interior Ministry, security forces unleashed tear gas.

"The president has fallen, but the regime is still here. It is still a part of political landscape," said Chebbi. But he added that he believed that the ministers of the ruling party who will remain have not been implicated in the corruption and repression of the former regime. "They have the goodwill to reform the country," he added. "It will be a complicated process, but we have to take the risks in order to reform. There is no other way."

On Monday, the European Union said it would offer economic aid to Tunisia and help it transform into a democracy. President Obama's top counterterrorism official, John Brennan, during a visit Monday to neighboring Algeria, said that the United States was ready to help Tunisia hold "free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations" of the Tunisian people.

Among other concerns, Washington is worried that radical Islamic groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb could capitalize on Tunisia's chaos and deepen a foothold in the region.

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