Tunisia's New Government Off To A Shaky Start

A new coalition government was unveiled in Tunisia Sunday. But the coalition, which includes opposition members and activists not associated with the regime of the ousted president, has drawn protests.

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This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Tunisia has had only two presidents since it obtained independence in 1957. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Tunisia declared independence from France in 1956; the republic was established in 1957.]

The most recent of those presidents fled on Friday after more than two decades in power, and now Tunisia is trying something new - something. We're not sure what yet. A coalition government was formed yesterday, and opposition figures have been included in the leadership for the first time.

We're going to talk about this with NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. She's on the line from the Tunisian capital, Tunis.

Soraya, so who's running the country?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Well, it's a coalition government. And as you mentioned, for the first time, you have opposition groups, like the Progressive Democratic Party, and even a former communist party called Movement for Renewal. And their members or their officials are now in the government, holding ministerial positions and other spots.

But the rest of the government is made up of ruling party members, including the prime minister, the defense minister, the foreign minister and the interior minister. And all of these were close allies of the ousted president.

Now, I've talked to some opposition members to see what they think about the coalition. They're not thrilled with it. They say it's not perfect, but they do insist that none of the former regime members in the new coalition are dirty or have blood on their hands.

INSKEEP: I suppose this raises the question, then, as to whether the opposition leaders who've agreed to participate in this government can bring the crowds on the streets along with them, or whether the people will push in some other direction.

NELSON: Well, the people certainly claim independence from the opposition groups or anybody. The protestors say that they have no leaders, and they're not very happy about the coalition government. And so you still are seeing protests. In fact, I went to a protest that came before the announcement was even officially made, that the coalition government had been formed. And that's because people were getting word that former regime members were still in it, and they wanted them out.

However, there are some other people who are protesting who are for this uprising, who say that they will try and give the coalition government a chance.

INSKEEP: Soraya, I'm trying to figure out exactly who is in the opposition that is part of the government, who's out on the streets, and where Islamist parties fit into all of this, if at all.

NELSON: Well, the opposition members who are in the government are part of so-called legal opposition parties that existed but were politically weak, if you will, and really had no say during the former rule by President Ben Ali.

So the Islamist factions and other groups are actually outside that periphery. They are not considered legal. And so what the coalition government is doing is making some of these factions legal. Although some of the opposition members said they don't want fake groups, if you will, coming in.

And so, as a result, there are people who are still on the outside, but that are going to be made legal - like these Islamic factions - that will then be allowed to run in any future elections. But how popular they will be is another question.

Certainly, there doesn't seem to be much traction here for Islamic groups in Tunis, not with the protestors that I've talked to. For example, I was interviewing one person yesterday who was saying that they should have the right to be running and to take part in a democratic society.

But then other protestors, when they heard this interview, started protesting and saying no. You know, they were objecting to what was being said, saying: No, these Islamists have no rights at all. So there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of conservative fervor here, at least that I've seen in the capital.

INSKEEP: Have any members of the new government said what they intend to do?

NELSON: For one thing, the prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, he's pledged to free political prisoners and lift restrictions on political parties and certain human rights groups. The government has said it will also create three commissions to address political reform and to investigate corruption and bribery. And Ghannouchi says he'll also look into abuses by the police and other security forces during the recent upheaval.

INSKEEP: Are the police still active on the streets and maintaining order?

NELSON: Absolutely. Yesterday, this protest that I was covering was dispersed when security forces began firing water cannons and tear gas, as well as firing some shots into the air. So they're still out there. But there seems to be a little bit of a change of attitude among the people. They don't seem to be as angry as - with the police as they were.

I'm not sure they feel as favorably disposed to them as they do the army. They feel the army is actually on their side. It's really unclear why they really feel that way, because it's not like the army is actually participating in this upheaval.

They do feel the police now are going after former Ben Ali militias and people that were loyal to the former president. So they're not quite as angry with the security forces as they were.

INSKEEP: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia.

Soraya, thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome, Steve.

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Correction Jan. 19, 2011

This report incorrectly states the date of Tunisia's independence. Tunisia declared independence from France in 1956 and the republic was established in 1957.

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