Unity government resignations threaten efforts to quell Tunisian unrest

Hundreds of protesters have led a peaceful, if noisy, rally in central Tunis, demanding that former allies of deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stop clinging to power.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 18, 2011; 10:24 PM

TUNIS - In their hands, they carried placards that read "Get out." In their pockets, they carried lemons to cleanse tear gas from their eyes. They also carried the hopes of a generation of Tunisians, if not the entire Arab world, fed up with the repression, the corruption, the sense of helplessness that have marked their lives.

It was 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday in this tense North African capital. Hundreds of protesters walked up Rome Street, a small road with whitewashed buildings in the center of the city. Ahead of them, black-clad policemen in full riot gear waited.

"Down, down, RCD," the crowd chanted, referring to the former ruling party.

"Get out, get out!"

It was demonstrations like this one, unfolding across the country over the past month, that led to the downfall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the autocrat who ruled Tunisia with an iron fist for 23 years. His departure for Saudi Arabia on Friday electrified the Arab world, dispatching fear into the region's other autocrats while inspiring countless who have long dreamed of an uprising of their own.

But for the young men and women behind what they call the Jasmine Revolution, the battle is far from over, their nation still a long way from the democracy, freedom and jobs they crave. On Tuesday, they protested the inclusion of Ben Ali's old guard in the cabinet of a day-old unity government, intended to pave the way for elections this year.

They were angry at the police and the political opposition for joining the new government. Their rage reflected the legacy of discontentment left behind by Ben Ali.

They also distrust the United States, a close ally of Ben Ali because of his staunch support in the fight against terrorism. Now that relationship is in question, as Tunisia struggles to create a new government amid chaos, an opening many in Washington fear could be exploited by al-Qaeda and other radical groups to deepen their foothold in North Africa.

In a region where elections are few or stolen, where power often passes from father to son, where official promises are frequently empty, the protesters are determined to get what they have fought for, even if that means more confrontations with the state.

"We don't want the same old order, the same old government," said Elias Majeru, 27, a fine arts graduate, wearing a black leather jacket and a thin beard. "We want a new chapter, new pages, new lines for Tunisia."

Even as they walked to confront the police, change was underway. At least three ministers, all labor union leaders, resigned from the unity government, succumbing to the street protests. By evening, interim President Fouad Mebazaa and Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannoushi, a key ally of Ben Ali, resigned from the RCD, although not their leadership posts, a move intended to offset the impact of the ministers' resignations.

The crowds on Rome Street demanded more.

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