Tunisians celebrate prime minister's resignation after round-the-clock protests

Violent street protests in Tunis,Tunisia, over the weekend killed five and led to interim Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi's resignation Sunday.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 28, 2011; 1:33 AM

TUNIS - Less than a minute after Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannoushi resigned Sunday in a speech on national television, the crowd filling this city's Casbah Square suddenly halted the angry chants that had continued round-the-clock for days. There was silence, and then cheers, chants and circles of ecstatic dancing.

For the second time in as many months, the people of Tunisia had toppled their government, and now their chant changed to "The act is done, the rest is yet to come!"

Ghannoushi quit because he had been unable to overcome his past as part of fallen president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's government, which ruled for 23 years until January's revolution. The peaceful demonstrations that accused Ben Ali of corruption and political oppression produced quick results, but in the past few days the crowds that continued to gather daily in the city's center had become more vocal and, in a few places, violent.

In most areas, police were nowhere to be seen, and the few army troops stationed in front of major government buildings stood impassively even when hundreds shouted at them, begging for help in controlling small bands of rowdy youths who have been looting and burning businesses along Tunis's main boulevard.

The latest demonstrations in Casbah Square, where the main government buildings are located, consisted of pockets of communists, Islamists, union members and students calling for a constitutional convention, all delivering speeches and generally enjoying their debates. But about 10 blocks away, directly on the other side of the old city's Casbah, or medieval bazaar, the crowds were much less civil and were eager for confrontation.

In his speech, the departing prime minister acknowledged the increasingly ugly face of the protests. "My resignation will provide a better atmosphere for the new era," Ghannoushi said, adding that he hoped his departure would end the violence on the streets. The Interior Ministry said three people have been killed since Friday in clashes between demonstrators and the government's domestic security police.

"My resignation is in the service of the country," said the 69-year-old politician, who had been prime minister since 1999. "I am not a man of repression."

But activists in several newly formed political parties said they worried that Ghannoushi's resignation would not be enough to halt round-the-clock protests in which many have been calling for the ouster of all ministers from the Ben Ali government.

"He had to go," said Abdelaziz Belkhodja, a publisher and novelist who is a founder of the new Republican Party here. "But the real worry is that there is so little time to arrange for elections and political structures."

Tunisia's constitution gives the interim government 60 days to hold an election. But on his way out Sunday, Ghannoushi set elections for July 15, using emergency rules to set the later date.

Towering plumes of black smoke filled the sky over the city center Saturday night and Sunday as small factions of young people attacked shops and burned a police station. Along the narrow cobblestone alleys of the Casbah, shop owners patrolled with broomsticks in hand, and citizen committees took the place of largely absent police checkpoints, searching all pedestrians. Every few minutes, a group of young men hustled by carrying someone wounded in the fracas on the far side of the bazaar. Some of the injured had been bloodied in fights with police, some had been overcome by tear gas used by police attempting to clear the avenue, and some had fainted from being deep inside the crush of the crowd.

A Washington Post photographer and a Tunisian translator were taken into custody by black-clad internal police Sunday, and an officer accused the translator of "helping the foreign media tell wrong things about the violence" on the streets of Tunis. The two were released within an hour. Police hit the translator with batons and chastised her for working for foreign journalists; the photographer was not hit.

The crowd in Casbah Square, which had been dominated by college students and well-dressed families of the country's educated elite, has changed in recent days. It now includes Muslim clerics preaching for the establishment of an Islamic state and activists of every political stripe. In this second phase of the revolution, which sparked a wave of demonstrations across the Arab world, more than 60 political parties have been established in less than a month.

"Of course we are proud," said Ramdhani Marouen, 21, a student at Tunis University. "But first we have to have a constitutional convention, and only then can we start a real democracy.

"We were not allowed to talk about politics for 23 years, so it's going to look very messy," Marouen said. "But I know we can come together."

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