Unity government resignations threaten efforts to quell Tunisian unrest

By Sudarsan Raghavan
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.

"Water and bread, but no Ghannoushi," they chanted.

2:40 p.m.

As they neared the police line, the protesters' chants grew louder. The policemen brandished their sticks, pulled down the plastic visors on their helmets. They crouched behind their shields and stepped forward.

Suddenly, a popping sound, then smoke engulfed Rome Street. The police had fired tear gas canisters. Some demonstrators threw stones, then quickly scattered around a corner. The gas stung the eyes. People squeezed lemon juice into one another's eyes. Others placed cotton in their noses; most covered their faces with their shirts or scarves.

"Killers, thieves," a woman screamed at the police, wiping her eyes, then helping a comrade, clearly shaken by the gas, off the street.

2:45 p.m.

Majeru and his comrades headed to the nearby offices of the opposition Progressive Democratic Party. Their leader, Nejib Chebbi, had joined the unity government as the minister of regional development, a minor job. The protesters thought he had sold them out. One started screaming at a window on the second floor.

"How could you join the government?" he shouted. "How could you allow yourself to become a part of this farce?"

Sahbi Khalfaoui, a youth leader in the party, came to the window. He looked down at the crowd and yelled: "For 10 years, we have fought against Ben Ali and against dictatorship. Our children were sent to jail. We are against anything he represents. We are with the people. We are with you."

The crowd was not convinced. One threw a rock at the balcony.

Ghassan ben Khalifa, a member of the party's central committee, came down.

Majeru confronted him.

"The first mistake we made in putting down Ben Ali was that we were not organized," he told Khalifa, inches from his face. "Now, the second mistake is that we are letting the old party stay in power."

Khalifa said that if the PDP is not part of the unity government, the door would be open for fundamental Islamists and the "evil elements" of the old regime to take over Tunisia, one of the Arab world's most moderate countries.

Majeru shook his head. He told Khalifa that "France and the U.S. are giving the green light to the army and police to take any means to control the situation. We don't trust any of them. And you shouldn't, either."

3:05 p.m.

The demonstrators regrouped and made their way up Rome Street again. This time, they reached the intersection of Avenue of Habib Thamer, near the city's main boulevard. Another line of policemen stood in their way. Behind the officers were armored vehicles and tanks painted camouflage green and ringed in razor wire.

Some in the crowd wore surgical masks, prepared for another round of tear gas.

A woman yelled at the policemen: "We are here to make Tunisia free. You are thieves. You are corrupt. You are against freedom."

The crowd started to chant: "Protest, protest. The entire state down."

Many of the demonstrators said they were there because they were frustrated with their lives and the lack of opportunities; the nation faces a shortage of jobs for educated youth. Others said they were continuing their struggle for all the "martyrs" who lost their lives fighting to overthrow Ben Ali. The government on Monday said 78 people have been killed in the uprising.

The list includes Lubna Milad's brother. "I am here to support him and to see justice," she said. "I am Tunisian. I love my country."

3:26 p.m.

The crowd moved back. Within minutes, four police trucks arrived, filled with men. The crowd began to sing the national anthem. Some placed cotton in their noses, waiting for the tear gas.

Shawki Sid, 30, said that for the past 23 years "of terror, violence and a lack of freedoms," no one had ever listened to him. He tried to get health benefits from the state but was turned down. Now, finally, he had a chance to be heard. But to fulfill this opportunity, more work must be done. "We have to scream even louder," he said.

"I don't believe in the new government," said Ubaid Djenaoui, 18 and unemployed, as he stood next to Sid. "The only solution is to continue the protests."

As he spoke, a man walked by and showed a silver tear gas canister. Written on its side: "Made in the USA." He shook his head and left without saying a word.

The crowd began to chant again: "Work. Liberty. National dignity."

One man stood on the shoulders of a comrade and yelled at the police: "A national government, but our freedoms are still missing."

The line of officers stood firm and stared blankly into the crowd.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company