Tunisia's prime minister unveils coalition government

Protesters took to Tunis's streets Monday, demanding that the entire ruling party be wiped away from the government, news reports said.
Protesters took to Tunis's streets Monday, demanding that the entire ruling party be wiped away from the government, news reports said. (Fred Dufour)
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 18, 2011

TUNIS - Tunisia's interim prime minister 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 shock waves across the Middle East.

But it remains to be seen whether the limited changes will satisfy Tunisia's discontented masses and keep them from taking to the streets again. Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannoushi, 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 news conference Monday, Ghannoushi 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. Ghannoushi also declared that the government would create commissions to investigate corruption and state-sponsored abuses committed during the 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 street 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 strongman and raised hopes across the region that Tunisia could not only become a strong 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. Ghannoushi was the first to take over, but he then abruptly surrendered leadership to Fouad Mebazaa, the parliamentary speaker, complying with rules set by Tunisia's constitution. Mebazaa is now the interim president until 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 Ghannoushi, who has been prime minister since 1999, said the shake-up would not include the key ministries of defense, interior and foreign affairs - positions that are held by Ben Ali 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," Chebbi said. But he added that he thought the ministers of the ruling party who will remain have not been implicated in the corruption and repression of the former government. "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 O. Brennan, during a visit 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 Islamist 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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