By Bouazza Ben Bouazza and Elaine Ganley- Associated Press
TUNIS, Tunisia – Tunisia took a step toward democracy and reconciliation Monday, promising to free political prisoners and opening its government to opposition forces long shut out of power — but the old guard held onto the key posts, angering protesters.
Demonstrators carrying signs reading “GET OUT!” demanded that the former ruling party be banished altogether — a sign more troubles lie ahead for the new unity government as security forces struggle to contain violent reprisals, shootings and lootings three days after the country’s longtime president fled under pressure from the streets.
“We’re afraid that the president has left, but the powers-that-be remain,” said Hylel Belhassen, a 51-year-old insurance salesman. Even before the new government was announced Monday, security forces fired tear gas to repel demonstrators who see the change of power as Tunisia’s first real chance at democracy.
President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled Friday to Saudi Arabia after a month of protests over unemployment and corruption led to his downfall after 23 years in power. The government announced Monday that 78 civilians have died in the month of unrest — an announcement that underlined the depth of the violence in the usually placid Mediterranean tourist destination.
Under autocratic Ben Ali, Tunisia was effectively under one-party rule. The new government named Monday includes three ministers from the opposition — a first in Tunisia — but members of Ben Ali’s RCD party held on to most of the jobs, including the most important posts.
Security forces were getting an image makeover in the public mind. The once-feared police are fighting snipers and armed groups widely believed to be Ben Ali loyalists.
Nearby nations, meanwhile, faced a wave of self-immolation attempts Monday, apparently influenced by the desperate Tunisian man who set himself on fire a month ago, sparking the protests that brought his president down.
In Tunisia, hundreds of stranded tourists were still being evacuated from the country, and foreign airlines gradually resumed flights that were halted when Tunisian airspace closed amid the upheaval.
Besides the 78 civilians killed in the monthlong protests, Interior Minister Ahmed Friaa said 94 civilians were injured — a jump from the previous official death toll of 23. The new figure does not include members of security forces, some of whom also died, Friaa said.
Among victims of the violence was a French photojournalist who died Monday after being hit in the face with a tear gas canister three days earlier. The French Foreign Ministry said Loucas Von Zabiensky-Mebrouk, 32, was the “victim of a deliberate homicidal act.”
The troubles have reverberated to the tourist-based Tunisian economy, which Friaa said has lost $2 billion (3 billion dinars) because of the unrest. Resort towns like Hammamet are boarded up and under police control, said Norredine Gohdbani, who worked in a restaurant there and has returned to stay with his family in Tunis.
Friaa told reporters that 85 police stations have been damaged around the country, along with 13 town halls, 43 banks, 11 factories and 66 stores or shopping centers.
Streets of the capital appeared calmer Monday but police were posted on most corners in downtown Tunis, with busloads of forces waiting to deploy along some streets. Most shops remained shuttered, but a rare eatery, a pizza restaurant, opened its doors — filled mostly with hungry police officers.
Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi offered a number of concessions to try to appease Ben Ali’s critics, while maintaining the ruling party’s dominance of government and public posts around the country.
Ghannouchi, a longtime Ben Ali ally who has been premier since 1999, retained his post, as did the current ministers of defense, interior and foreign affairs.
Three opposition figures, including Nejib Chebbi, a founder of the opposition PDP party, will take up posts in the new government.
More significantly, Ghannouchi pledged such measures as freeing political prisoners and lifting restrictions on a leading human rights group, the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights. He said the government would create three new state commissions to study political reform, investigate corruption and bribery, and examine abuses during the recent upheaval.
However, at least one union leader said the changes were not enough and predicted demonstrations would continue until all key figures ruling party had been swept from power.
“It (the ruling RCD) left by the back door and is coming back through the window,” said Habib Jerjir, a member of the executive bureau of the Regional Workers’ Union of Tunis.
Meanwhile, demands for change were being made across sectors reined in by the Ben Ali regime’s grip.
Journalists at the nation’s oldest state-run paper, La Presse, rose up in revolt Monday and dismissed the editor-in-chief, Gawhar Chatty. The paper, which featured daily front-page photos of Ben Ali or his wife, is to be run by a committee of journalists until new editorial leadership is appointed.
They advised Chatty by phone that he was no longer welcome but he came to work anyway.
The noted cartoonist Lotfi Ben Sassi marched into his office and said: “We can no longer allow you to continue with this editorial line.”
“We are journalists,” Lotfi said, his words captured by an Associated Press Television News cameraman.
When Chatty was asked later if he had restricted reporting, he responded, “Yes, there was censure.”
Some opposition leaders have pressed for waiting longer than the 60- day period prescribed by the constitution to hold presidential elections, saying that would allow the public to get to know candidates after a lifetime of one-party rule.
One opposition leader, Ahmed Ibrahim, who was appointed minister for higher education, told the website of the French weekly Le Point that elections would not be held “for six or seven months.” An official in the premier’s office said that would likely be the case.
The country is being run by interim president Fouad Mebazaa, the former speaker of the lower house of parliament and a veteran of Tunisia’s ruling party.
Moncef Marzouki, a physician who leads the once-banned CPR party from exile in France where he has lived for the last 20 years, told France-Info radio he would be a candidate in the presidential election.
“The question is whether there will be or won’t be free and fair elections,” said Marzouki, whose movement is of the secular left.
During a visit to neighboring Algeria on Monday, President Barack Obama’s top counterterrorism official, John Brennan, said the United States stands ready to help Tunisia’s government to hold “free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations” of the Tunisian people.
In a Twitter post, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said, “Tunisia made some important promises today, to open up to media and human rights groups. These are steps in the right direction.”
The European Union also pledged its support of Tunisia as it moves toward democracy and offered economic aid.
Finance Minister Christine Lagarde of France — a former colonial overseer of Tunisia — told French radio Monday the French government is keeping a close watch on the assets of Tunisians in French banks.
Also in France, three rights groups filed a legal complaint Monday seeking an investigation into French assets of the families of Ben Ali and his wife, to determine whether they were purchased with embezzled public funds.
Looting, gunbattles, and score-settling have roiled the country since Friday, when a month of street protests against years of repression, corruption and a lack of jobs brought down Ben Ali.
Over the weekend, police arrested dozens of people, including the top presidential security chief, as tensions mounted between Tunisians buoyant over Ben Ali’s ouster and loyalists in danger of losing many perks.
Fierce gunbattles broke out between the two groups Sunday around the presidential palace in Carthage on the Mediterranean shore, north of Tunis and near the Interior Ministry in the capital.
The protests began last month after an educated but unemployed 26-year-old man set himself on fire when police confiscated the fruit and vegetables he was selling without a permit. The desperate act — from which he later died — hit a nerve, sparking copycat suicides and focused anger against the regime into a widespread revolt.
Reports of self-immolations surfaced in Egypt, Mauritania and Algeria on Monday, in apparent imitation of the Tunisian events.
The downfall of the 74-year-old Ben Ali, who had taken power in a bloodless coup in 1987, served as a warning to other autocratic leaders in the Arab world. His Mediterranean nation, an ally in the U.S. fight against terrorism and a popular tourist destination known for its wide beaches, deserts and ancient ruins, had seemed more stable than many in the region. AP