Tunisian unity government loses 4 former opposition figures

The deep divide in Tunisia over the status and fate of the deposed dictator’s ruling party threatened the fragile unity government on Tuesday just a day after it was announced.

At least four former opposition figures quit the Cabinet, apparently under pressure from rank-and-file members opposed to the inclusion of six members of the previous regime in the transitional administration meant to pave the way for new elections.

Rowdy demonstrators enraged over the participation in the government of members of former President Zine el Abidine ben Ali’s ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally, or RCD, taunted baton-wielding police officers during cat-and-mouse clashes in the capital and other cities.


In hurried conversations along alleyways choked with tear gas, protesters said anyone would be better than the likes of transitional Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, who served in the same post under Ben Ali.

“We’ll live on just bread and water, but without Ghannouchi!” they chanted.

Faced with continued and apparently mounting anger in the streets, Ghannouchi and interim President Fouad Mebazaa formally resigned from the former ruling party, Tunisian state television reported Tuesday. “We must build a new government,” Ghannouchi said in a televised speech. “We leave the RCD, and the RCD expels Ben Ali” and his family.

Weeks of street protests led to Ben Ali’s ouster last week after 23 years in power, inspiring dissidents in other authoritarian regimes in the Arab world. In recent days, men in Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania have set themselves on fire, emulating Mohammad Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation last month sparked the uprising. Demonstrations in support of the Tunisian revolt have broken out across the Arab world.

The transitional government was meant in part to give a voice to Tunisia’s opposition forces. But on Tuesday, three members of the General Union of Tunisian Workers, or UGTT, quit the Cabinet a day after joining it.

In an appearance on the Tunisian TV7 channel, union official Abid Briki called for the “removal of all symbols of the previous regime” and spoke of the “responsibility of the government to follow through on the will of the people.”

Mustapha ben Jaafar, the minister of health and the leader of Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties party, also quit, according to state television.

One other opposition member of the Cabinet also was reported to have quit, though the information could not be immediately confirmed, and others threatened to quit.

Analysts described the defections as a glancing but not fatal blow to the transitional government. But it underscored the divide within the nation and within a newly emerging political class over the course of the country.

“The new government is stuck between reforming of the regime and a revolution,” said Hamadi Redissi, a political scientist.

“Some people say we need continuity to create a new government,” said Samira Dami, an editor at the French-language daily La Presse. “Another part wants to destroy the RCD.”

Leaders of little-known opposition parties taking part in the government struggled to explain themselves to supporters angry over the participation of the old guard. They argued that losing the former regime members’ administrative expertise ahead of elections in six months would be unconstitutional, risk plunging the country into chaos and pave the way for a possible military takeover.

But none of the opposition leaders appear to have the charisma or stature to make the case to the public. Many Tunisians are stunned to see the same figures return to power after an uprising that cost the lives of at least 78 demonstrators.

The demands of demonstrators appeared to be gaining ground among the public, egged on by fiery leftist and Islamist exiled figures speaking on satellite television channels and posting denunciations on Facebook. Some are trickling back into the country, including Moncef Marzouki, who demanded in an interview on Al Jazeera television after his arrival Tuesday that the government reconsider its decision to include officials from Ben Ali’s Cabinet.

On streets that a month ago were tightly controlled by Ben Ali’s security services, impromptu debates broke out.

“They stole our money and ruined our country. I want anyone but them,” said Samar, an unemployed history graduate who was among a group battling police officers in the center of Tunis. She declined to give her last name.

Saber-Youssef Hamdi said the former regime tossed him into jail for three years because one of his friends was a radical Islamist. “They tortured me,” the 28-year-old said. “They destroyed my life. We have to get rid of the RCD.”

Down the street, two young men calmly defended the temporary unity government as a necessity before a crowd of other Tunisians decried it. “If a patient has cancer, you can’t cure it in one day,” said Ahmad Kaniche, a 26-year-old unemployed translator. “The RCD is a cancer. We need time.”

A woman standing began shouting, “I don’t want them because they are thieves!”

The problem, Kaniche said later, “is that she knows what she doesn’t want but doesn’t know what she wants.”

Special correspondents Sihem Hassaini in Tunis and Meris Lutz in Beirut contributed to this report.