Facing mounting public pressure and the demands of a powerful labor union, Tunisia’s interim government named 12 new ministers to the Cabinet late Thursday and removed those with ties to ousted authoritarian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali.
Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, who served in the same post under Ben Ali, was among the few high-ranking officials to retain their positions. The ministers of defense, interior and foreign affairs, which are key posts, and nine others were replaced by figures considered independent.
“We are at the service of the country,” Ghannouchi said in a televised announcement. “We’re all listening to all the opinions and all the ideas.”
Protesters at a five-day tent encampment outside the prime minister’s office broke out in jubilation at the news, Al Jazeera television showed.
The Cabinet reshuffle appeared to please the powerful General Union of Tunisian Workers, or UGTT, which had orchestrated the protests and threatened general strikes if the interim government did not submit to its demand to purge most members of the former regime from the Cabinet.
Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane had resigned earlier, telling the official news agency TAP that he was doing so “in the interest of Tunisia.”
In an uprising led mostly by young working-class men, Tunisians on Jan. 14 ousted Ben Ali, who is believed to be in Saudi Arabia. Opponents of Ben Ali’s government had complained of corruption, lack of jobs and repression.
At least 72 people were killed by security forces and dozens more died in prison riots. The union, which largely collaborated with Ben Ali during his 23-year rule, rushed to catch up to a snowballing movement that surprised even seasoned opposition activists and has sparked similar uprisings across the Arab world.
Three members of the union and fellow labor activists had joined the interim government’s Cabinet but quit after they claimed their rank and file had rejected the government over the inclusion of figures associated with the Constitutional Democratic Rally, or RCD, the former ruling party. They bused protesters from the countryside to the capital, Tunis, on what they described as “freedom flotillas” and threatened strikes that could cripple Tunisia’s fragile economy.
The Cabinet reshuffle appeared to be a major victory for the union, which was established in the 1920s and inspired similar labor movements in other North African countries.
A union official said a meeting is planned Friday to discuss ways to pressure the government over the composition of three special commissions pursuing constitutional, political and financial reforms.
“The government has ignored our conditions because we have asked them to reform the committees,” Abid Briki, a union spokesman, told The Times.
The interim government has scheduled general elections within six months. The West, which long backed Ben Ali’s regime as a bulwark against Islamic extremism, has now heartily endorsed the uprising.
In a visit to Tunis on Thursday, Hugues Mingarelli, a European Union foreign policy official, vowed to support Tunisia by providing financial aid to prop up the economy and support to civil society groups.
“The EU is willing to provide its political, legal, technical and material support to the democratic transition in Tunisia,” an EU news release said.