Tunisia's new government teeters on brink

By Kim Sengupta

Any hope of political stability in Tunisia all but disappeared yesterday with the new Government of "national unity" on the brink of collapse one after being formed, amid continuing clashes between police and protesters demanding all vestiges of the oppressive former regime be swept away.

A group of opposition politicians - brought into a hastily cobbled-together Government on Tuesday to try to placate the angry demonstrators - walked out in an atmosphere of growing fractiousness and uncertainty within the leadership. There were reports that Mohamed Ghannouchi, the Prime Minister, had to be persuaded not to resign.

The walkouts failed to prevent the steady unravelling of the coalition following vociferous demands from the rank and file of the opposition that their leaders must not serve in the same Government as those who had previously worked under former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who fled at the weekend after weeks of street protests against his corrupt rule.

The first three resignations were junior ministers, but they were followed out the door by the Health Minister, Mustafa Ben Jaafar. Another senior opposition leader, Ahmed Ibrahim, the Higher Education Minister, also threatened to quit unless Cabinet members from the old regime resigned from the ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), and returned any property they had gained while in office.

The demands yesterday forced Ghannouchi - Prime Minister since 1999 under Ben Ali and seen to symbolise the former regime - into the latest of a series of climbdowns, when he and the interim President both resigned from their party.

The range of the protests is spreading with professional groups now taking organised action. Among those marching yesterday were doctors and nurses, while journalists at a group running two of the biggest papers, La Presse and Essahafa, took over their offices.

As police fired tear gas at a rally in Tunis, one protester, Ben Tahar Saumi, a professor of medicine, said: "The police do not understand. The day they can terrorise us by force is over ... The protests, must continue until we become a normal society again."


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