Tunisia protesters demand that more government officials resign

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
Wednesday, January 19, 2011; 7:20 PM

TUNIS - Hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Tunisia's capital again Wednesday, a day after four ministers pulled out of the new unity government's cabinet, and demanded that the prime minister and other cabinet members aligned with the country's deposed autocrat also resign.

Although the demonstration in Tunis was smaller than in recent days, it served as a reminder of the uncertainty still facing this North African nation, five days after ousted president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled with his family to Saudi Arabia. The protesters are now focused on forcing from power the remnants of Ben Ali's government, including Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannoushi and several key ministers, among them those who control the defense and foreign affairs portfolios.

"Ghannoushi must go!" the crowd chanted Wednesday.

The pressure on the new government is matched by growing scrutiny of Ben Ali's 23 years in power.

Late Wednesday, Tunisian state television quoted government officials as saying that 33 members of Ben Ali's family had been arrested, and it broadcast images of gold, jewelry, credit cards and bank statements that the officials said were seized from the detainees. It was unclear whether the arrests took place inside Tunisia. Officials have promised to release a list of names later.

Earlier Wednesday, Switzerland said it was freezing the assets of Ben Ali and his relatives and associates, who are widely accused of using their influence to enrich themselves at their country's expense. An investigation into allegations that they bought property and stocks abroad and transferred foreign currency overseas has also been launched, according to Tunisia's state news agency.

Meanwhile, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Navanethem Pillay, said that more than 100 people had died in the month-long uprising and that her office will send a team of investigators to Tunisia next week to open an inquiry into the deaths. The government said this week that 78 people had died.

Pillay, a former U.N. war crimes judge, said at a news conference in Geneva that those behind the killings must be held accountable by an independent judiciary, "because without justice, we will not have proper peace and reconciliation in Tunisia."

The fall of Ben Ali - the region's first autocrat in decades to be ousted by a popular uprising - has mesmerized the Arab world, serving as a warning to other authoritarian regimes and an inspiration to other populations eager for democracy and basic freedoms.

The United States has urged Arab allies such as Egypt to push for calm in the region, while the head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, used the occasion of an economic summit in Egypt on Wednesday to urge the Middle East's Arab leaders to address the economic, political and social problems dividing their own societies - troubles similar to those that led to Tunisia's upheaval.

"What is happening in Tunisia in terms of the revolution is not an issue far from the issues of this summit, which is economic and social development," Moussa told the audience. "The Arab citizen has entered a stage of anger that is unprecedented."

Across Tunis, meanwhile, there were signs that life was returning to normal, even as the protests continued downtown. Many people went back to work, and public transportation systems resumed operation. Cafes were crowded with people sipping coffee and chatting. The government shortened a curfew by three hours, a sign that security was improving.

The new unity government is expected to hold its first official cabinet meeting Thursday, but it is unclear whether Ghannoushi will convene it, given the vocal demands for the cabinet to be purged of any holdovers from Ben Ali's old guard.

In an apparent effort to build its credibility and restore calm, the government said Wednesday that it has freed all political prisoners sentenced under Ben Ali's government - a group numbering in the hundreds, including members of a banned Islamist movement, according to the Reuters news service.

The government has also pledged to investigate allegations of corruption and bring to justice those responsible for the killings during the uprising.

"While it is still very early days, it is important that the seeds of change are sown wisely and sown now, before former entrenched interests start to reassert themselves or new threats emerge," Pillay said.

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