Tunisia Unity Cabinet to Hold First Meeting Amid Row
19 January 2011
Tunisia's national unity cabinet is set to meet for the first time, amid a row over the presence of members of the previous government in key positions.
Four opponents of the ousted president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, quit the government on Tuesday in protest at the continued domination of his RCD party.
In response, Interim President Fouad Mebazaa and Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi resigned from the RCD.
But the opposition ministers said the move had not allayed their concerns.
Meanwhile, further violent protests have raised doubts about the likelihood of a stable transition to an open and democratic government.
The government says 78 people have been killed in protests since mid-December, and set the economy back by $1.6bn euros ($2.2bn).
On Tuesday, two ministers and a junior minister from the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) withdrew from the cabinet, saying they wanted to see all members of the former government dismissed, with the exception of Mr Ghannouchi.
"This is in response to the demands of people on the streets," union organiser Abid al-Briki told reporters.
The Health Minister, Mustapha Ben Jaafar of the opposition FDLT party, also said he would not take up his position until key posts were not occupied by those associated with Mr Ben Ali's rule.
The foreign, interior and defence ministers all kept their jobs the national unity cabinet was unveiled on Monday.
Mr Ghannouchi said that he and the other remaining ministers had helped "preserve the national interest" in the past month, and were needed ahead of elections expected in the next two months.
"They kept their posts because we need them at this time," he told French radio Europe 1. "All of them have clean hands."
The prime minister also quit the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), but the UGTT said the move was not sufficient to tempt it back.
The dominance of the RCD in the new government was also condemned by one of Mr Ben Ali's fiercest critics, CPR party leader Moncef Marzouki, who returned to Tunisia on Tuesday after two decades of exile in Paris.
"It's a government that isn't one. They have to leave. They don't represent anything," he told reporters at Tunis airport amid jubilant scenes. "It is the continuation of the dictatorship."
"The RCD is a parasite. They exploited the apparatus of the state. When we take them away, the state will function much better. Luckily, in Tunisia we have a great bureaucracy that can run the state."
Mr Marzouki also urged fellow Tunisians to continue pressing for the complete ejection of RCD members from important positions.
"Don't let anyone steal this blessed revolution from you," he said. "Don't waste the blood of our martyrs."
Riot police fired tear gas at two protests in central Tunis on Tuesday, one of which was led by Sadok Chourou of the banned Islamist Ennahdha Movement, who was imprisoned for 20 years during Mr Ben Ali's rule.
The leader of Ennahdha, Rached Ghannouchi, will only be allowed to return from exile in London if a life sentence imposed on him in 1991 for plotting against the state is cancelled by an amnesty, according to the prime minister.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Rached Ghannouchi said his party espoused a moderate pluralism, and envisioned a society far more liberal and open than Iran or Saudi Arabia.
Ennahdha had signed a shared statement of principles with the other opposition groups that included freedom of expression, freedom of association and women's rights, he added.
The US has welcomed the new government's decision to end restrictions on the media and free all political prisoners, but warned that political change in Tunisia must be more fundamental and wide-ranging.
"We want to see an open process, significant dialogue between the government and significant groups that want to play a role in Tunisia's future," said state department spokesman PJ Crowley.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has meanwhile renewed his call for "broad-based consultations to establish an inclusive interim government".
He has also expressed his concern about the "growing violence" and urged all efforts to be made to restore peace and stability.
Some opposition leaders have expressed fears that a collapse of the national unity cabinet could trigger a military takeover.