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Tunisia's Coalition Government Is In Turmoil
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Tunisia's Coalition Government Is In Turmoil

Africa

Tunisia's Coalition Government Is In Turmoil

Tunisia's Coalition Government Is In Turmoil
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The coalition government in Tunisia is in danger of collapse — just days after it was established. The new government took over after the president of the North African country was deposed last week and fled the country.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This morning, we're learning that Tunisia's political future is far from settled. The president, who many called a dictator, fled last week. But the days-old coalition government is now in danger of collapsing after four newly appointed ministers from the opposition quit.

In a bid to further appease those calling for change, this morning, the interim government announced it's launching an investigation into the former regime's alleged corruption.

As NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports, outraged Tunisians are demanding to know just where the vast wealth amassed by the former president and his family actually went.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Tear gas didn't stop these key protestors, who stayed on this key thoroughfare in central Tunis after most people fled. They shouted and handed out leaflets printed with the names of regime members who are now in the new government.

NAJEED(ph) (Banker): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: One passerby, who only gave her first name, Najeed, says she understands the protestors feeling bitter about the old guard remaining in charge. But the 53-year-old banker adds: The interim government should be given a chance to prove itself.

Many more Tunisians, however, feel it's too risky to give the ruling party another chance.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

NELSON: Like Mahtou Mosen(ph), a physics teacher and counselor.

Mr. MAHTOU MOSEN (Physics Teacher, Counselor): We want the coalition that's in place fully, the will of the people, democracy, freedom and the basic need of the population: food, water, clean air, jobs and overall, national dignity. We are not banana's republic.

(Soundbite of chanting)

NELSON: Mosen and scores of other protestors gathered in front of the trade union building. They shouted for a new constitution and warned officials against any attempt to sweep past wrongdoings under the rug.

University lecturer Fahti Halel(ph) says he and others here worry corruption, in particular, is likely to be covered up.

Mr. FAHTI HALEL (University Lecturer): They are asking for a radical change that gets away from the past, because corruption is deeply entrenched, you know, in all the apparatus of the state.

NELSON: He says any new government here needs to investigate ousted president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and her relatives. They're accused of operating like a mafia, and they're alleged to have generated millions for themselves through extortion and graft. Some rumors here have the former first lady hauling gold bars out of the country as she fled.

The president and his family are believed to have stashed away many hundreds of millions of dollars in Swiss, French and other foreign bank accounts.

Lawyer Mohammed Abbou, a dissident who spent two-and-a-half years in jail under the former regime, represents a Tunisian businessman who says he was forced to pay $150,000 to one of the former first lady's brothers in 2008.

Mr. MOHAMMED ABBOU (Attorney): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Abbou says the businessman was told he needed to pay the bribe in order to spring his Hong Kong shipment from Tunisian Customs. His client filed a complaint, but instead, the police arrested him outside his lawyer's office. The case has gone nowhere, Abbou adds.

Mr. ABBOU: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: He fears that isn't likely to change, given who the new government has been assigning to tackle corruption. Abbou says a prosecutor who blocked cases against the ruling family during the regime has now been assigned as a watchdog. That prosecutor has been asked by the new government to investigate the ousted president's head of security. He expressed similar doubts about a commission announced this week by the prime minister to investigate corruption.

Mr. ABBOU: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Abbou says he was dismayed when the prime minister went on national television to say he had no idea corruption was so rampant. The lawyer asks how Tunisians can be expected to believe such a claim when any child here can tell you about corruption.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Tunis.

MONTAGNE: And just this morning, Switzerland announced it is freezing former President Ben Ali's assets to help in any corruption case that may be brought against him.

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