Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images
Two women walk past graffitti scrawled on a wall surrounding the burnt and looted house that belonged to the nephew of ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Hammamet, southeast of Tunis.
Two women walk past graffitti scrawled on a wall surrounding the burnt and looted house that belonged to the nephew of ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Hammamet, southeast of Tunis. Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images
Tunisia's new government began releasing prisoners Wednesday and moved to track down assets stashed overseas by its deposed president and his widely disliked family.
Tensions on the streets appeared to be calming as the administration tried to show it was distancing itself from the old guard.
Hundreds of protesters led a rally in central Tunis demanding that former allies of deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stop clinging to power. Later, about 30 youths in the capital broke a curfew and set up camp near the heavily guarded Interior Ministry, bringing mats, food and water for an overnight sit-in. Police didn't bother them.
In recent days, police have fired tear gas and clubbed protesters.
The U.N. said more than 100 people have died in the unrest that surrounded Ben Ali's ouster after 23 years in power.
An interim government — led by Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi and others with close ties to the autocratic Ben Ali — was installed in a dramatic turn of events in the North African country. The government was expected to hold its first Cabinet meeting Wednesday, but questions its legitimacy have left many Tunisians uneasy.
At least four opposition ministers quit the new Cabinet on Tuesday, aligning themselves with demonstrators who insist democratic change is impossible unless the government is purged of the old guard.
Ghannouchi and acting President Fouad Mebazaa, the former speaker of the lower house of parliament, quit the ruling RCD party Tuesday in an attempt to distance themselves from Ben Ali. The party itself kicked out Ben Ali, its founder, national TV reported.
Weeks of protests driven by rising food prices, unemployment and complaints about corruption drove Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee the country for Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14 — after 23 years in power.
The immediate trigger for the violent protests was the self-immolation on Dec. 17 of Mohamed Bouazizi, a university graduate who had been unable to find work. After being harassed by police for selling vegetables from a cart, Bouazizi set himself ablaze.
Since Ben Ali's departure, Tunisia has cycled through new leaders rapidly, with power changing between two new chiefs of state in the first 24 hours. On Jan. 17, interim Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi formed a unity government that included figures from opposition parties. But four opposition ministers stepped down a day later, bowing to protesters angry that the government still included officials from Democratic Constitutional Rally, Ben Ali's party, which has ruled Tunisia since it gained independence in 1956.
Tunisia's so-called Jasmine Revolution has sparked debate about whether Ben Ali's departure will lead to regime change elsewhere in the Arab world. Thus far, there are no serious signs of calls for change in neighboring countries, although there have been self-immolations in Egypt, Mauritania and Algeria, as well as demonstrations elsewhere.
— Alan Greenblatt
Mebazaa went on television and promised to live up to the people's revolt, which he called a "revolution.''
"Regarding security, you have certainly noticed that it has improved,'' he said. "We have discovered the leaders of the chaos, and have stopped the gangs and those who put fear in the hearts of people. The situation is moving toward stability.''
Labor unions, students and members of the Ennahdha Islamist party, which Ben Ali banned in 1992 and cracked down on for years, have been among those still protesting since the president was deposed and fled to Saudi Arabia.
Demonstrators sang nationalist songs during Wednesday's protests and held up signs with "RCD Out!" as they walked down Avenue Bourguia in central Tunis. White-and-blue police vans lined the route.
Physics teacher Maatoug Mohsen was among protesters who gathered in front of a trade union building in Tunis. He told NPR that he thinks it's too risky to give the ruling party another chance.
"We want a coalition that reflects fully the will of the people, democracy, freedom and the basic needs of the population: food, water, clean air, jobs and overall national dignity," Mohsen said.
Tunisia, he added, is "not a banana republic."
Another protester, university lecturer Fathi Helal, said he and others worry that government corruption is likely to be covered up.
Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images
Protesters marched in the center of Tunis on Wednesday. Despite weeks of violence, authorities said the security situation has improved enough to shorten a curfew that has been in place for days.
Protesters marched in the center of Tunis on Wednesday. Despite weeks of violence, authorities said the security situation has improved enough to shorten a curfew that has been in place for days. Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images
"Corruption is deeply entrenched ... in all the apparatus of the state," Helal told NPR.
In another apparent effort to quell the unrest, a Tunisian prosecutor has opened an investigation into the overseas assets of Ben Ali and his family, the official TAP news agency reported Wednesday. It said the prosecutor's office has decided to investigate bank accounts, real estate and other assets held by Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi, and other relatives.
A French government minister said the Tunisian central bank director has resigned following widespread rumors that Trabelsi fled the country with a stash of gold. The central bank has denied an unsourced report in French newspaper Le Monde that said she was believed to have taken 1.5 tons of gold out of the country, possibly bringing it to Switzerland.
Despite the continued protests, the government has reduced the hours of an overnight curfew put in place last week, citing "an improvement in the security situation in the country," the news agency also reported. The curfew hours will now be 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., rather than 6 p.m. to 7 a.m.
The unrest also rattled Tunisia's economy, which has seen impressive growth in recent years. Moody's Investor Service downgraded Tunisia's government bond ratings Wednesday, citing "significant uncertainties" surrounding the country's economic and political future.
The protests began last month when an educated but unemployed 26-year-old man set himself on fire after police confiscated the fruit and vegetables he was selling illegally. The move hit a nerve among frustrated jobless youths and prompted protests around the nation. Officials say at least 78 protesters and civilians died in the protests that swept Ben Ali from power — many killed by police bullets.
Ben Ali was often criticized for heavy-handed repression against his opponents, curbing civil liberties and running a police state — though he was praised for developing tourism and allying with the U.S. against terrorism. His relatives, especially his wife's family, were seen as corrupt and dominated many businesses in the nation.
Bowing to protesters' demands in recent days, Ghannouchi has pledged to free political prisoners, lift restrictions on the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights and create state panels to investigate possible bribery and abuses during the upheaval.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reported from Tunis for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press