Heavy gunfire erupted in the heart of Tunisia’s capital on Sunday as the army appeared to be closing in on stalwarts of the regime driven from power last week and the interim government prepared to name a new Cabinet free of any major figures linked to deposed President Zine el Abidine ben Ali.
Former Interior Minister Rafik Belhaj Kassim was taken into custody in his hometown of Beja, about 60 miles west of Tunis, the capital, a day after the arrest of Ali Seriati, former chief of the presidential guard, state television reported. Both men led security apparatuses seen as tools of repression under the former regime.
Ben Ali led this North African country for 23 years before he was ousted in an uprising driven by disaffected youths clamoring for economic opportunities and political freedom.
Talks between former opponents of the regime and the interim government led by Fouad Mebazaa yielded an agreement that no major figure from the former ruling party would be included in the temporary Cabinet overseeing the state’s affairs until elections are held in 60 days, said Mahmoud ben Romdhane, a leader of Renewal, an opposition party.
“It’s finished,” he said of Ben Ali’s Constitutional Democratic Rally, or RCD, party. “The RCD is completely destroyed.”
The Reuters news agency cited anonymous sources as saying only that the old regime’s foreign minister, Kamel Morjane, and interior minister, Ahmad Friaa, would retain their posts. Both men are respected as technocrats. Morjane is a career diplomat who served for years as deputy chief at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Friaa was named to his post by Ben Ali last week in a scramble to placate Tunisians angry over heavy-handed police violence against protesters.
“God willing, maybe tomorrow, we will announce a government of national unity with which we can start a new page in our history,” interim Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, who also served under Ben Ali and will retain his post, said in a live telephone interview broadcast on state television.
The outcome of the uprising, sparked by the self-immolation last month of a 26-year-old man frustrated and humiliated by his economic prospects, carries enormous weight in a politically ossified Arab world. Ben Ali’s popular overthrow has inspired hopes of other nations toppling entrenched Arab regimes stretching from North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula.
Dozens of people have died in weeks of anti-government demonstrations and the chaotic aftermath of Ben Ali’s ouster.
As dusk settled Sunday and a 6 p.m. curfew took hold, the center of this capital resembled a war zone, with helicopters circling overhead, automatic-weapons fire erupting and panicked police officers and soldiers hustling passersby into the shelter of doorways. Police officers said pitched battles were taking place between security forces and supporters of Ben Ali’s rule. The clashes continued into the early evening, with rumors of snipers positioned on rooftops fueling fears.
Police chased after suspicious persons in the warren of streets near the city center. Pan-Arab and local television stations were filled with reports of arrests of armed men said to be close to the former regime, including in Tunisia’s second-largest city, Sfax.
Clashes were also reported near the country’s main international airport on the road to the historic city of Carthage. State television reported the arrests of six armed German and Swedish nationals allegedly affiliated with the country’s former security services.
Large crowds could be seen lining up at the few bakeries and grocery stores open. Many said they were running out of food and unable to access funds from bank machines.
“People are saying we are in Fallouja,” said one scholar, comparing Tunisia to the Iraqi city that had seen heavy fighting in recent years.
Officials blamed disgruntled loyalists to the old regime for sowing chaos as a last-ditch effort to pave the way for their return. The official Tunisian news agency reported that Seriati, the former chief of the presidential guard, and his deputies were being investigated on charges of plotting to destabilize the country by provoking attacks and encouraging people to arm themselves, as well as on charges of murder and looting.
In neighborhoods of the capital and surrounding suburbs, citizen militias of young men wielding makeshift clubs, even swords, had established checkpoints and blocked off streets to protect their neighborhoods, calling police and army officers and even radio stations at signs of trouble.
“When we see a suspicious driver, we stop them and call the police,” said Hamoud Maherzi, an architecture student in his early 20s. “We have batons. We have small daggers.”
Special correspondent Sihem Hassaini contributed to this report.