Tunisia's Interim Government Faces Power Struggle

The political crisis in the North African country of Tunisia has many questioning who is in control of the government. Protests continue, the interim government remains shaky and the military is exerting a strong presence.

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And the interim prime minister of Tunisia is facing pressure to resign, as Tunisians continue to criticize his ties to the ousted president. Protesters are still taking to the streets, and the military is exerting a strong presence across the country. Tunisia's provisional government made a series of arrests over the weekend and temporarily shut down a private TV station, all of which has raised questions about who is really in control.

Here's NPR's Eric Westervelt from the capital, Tunis.

Unidentified Group: (Chanting in foreign language)

ERIC WESTERVELT: The street protests in central Tunis are now so routine that the street vendors have set up shop. The revolution now comes with popcorn. And while the protests are peaceful, passions are still running very high.

A woman tells protester Adrees Yahyowee that not all members of the former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's party were corrupt and oppressive. And Yahyowee yells back at her.

Mr. ADREES YAHYOWEE: (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: Members of this dirty government helped Ben Ali escape, he says, adding: Freedom and democracy can't be born from a dirty government, from people with bloody hands.

Like thousands across the country, Yahyowee wants the interim government free of ties to the old regime and its party, the RCD. Despite the focus on that old party, there is concern the Tunisian military may be playing a much larger role now than many Tunisians caught up in the fervor and euphoria of revolt want to admit.

The army continues to guard strategic buildings and facilities, including the port, the state broadcasting building, the airport, the foreign ministry and more.

Attorney Makram Guebsi is with the political office of the PDP, an opposition party that is now part of the provisional government.

Mr. MAKRAM GUEBSI (Attorney, PDP): There are voices now in Tunis that are calling for military government. But simple citizens think that the army can give security, can gave give democracy, can give liberty for them. And this is a bigger mistake. It can be dangerous for the republic.

WESTERVELT: On Sunday, Tunisian state TV announced that the owner of a private TV network and his son were arrested for, quote, high treason and conspiracy against the country. It was similar to other recent cryptic announcements of arrests of former Ben Ali associates and family members.

But the interim government has offered few details. Who made the arrests, and under whose authority? What are the charges, and what are they based on? Where are they being held? Neither the interim government nor the military will say. And attorney Guebsi says it's not clear all members of the interim government are even in the loop.

As a party in the government...

Mr. GUEBSI: Yes.

WESTERVELT: ...are you getting accurate, clear information from the military?

Mr. GUEBSI: No. Really, no. No.

WESTERVELT: Some Tunisians decried the TV station's temporary closure as a worrying blow to free expression and the country's shaky, newfound freedom. The weekend's developments all seem to point to a growing internal power struggle between the interim government, former members of the ruling RCD Party, the military and security factions. It's also not clear what, if anything, has happened to the presidential guard and the secret police, both of which were key to the internal repression machine sustaining Ben Ali's autocratic rule. There have been some arrests, but again, no details.

Protestor Muheiba Shakir sees troubling signs.

Ms. MUHEIBA SHAKIR: If the secret police still exist and still reports the sorts of people, I am sure that today somebody is writing what I am saying and is going to report it. But, OK, I don't scare, because I know that I will not allow any person now, from now on, to make me silent. But I am not sure if next year, at this moment, I will say the same thing.

WESTERVELT: For now, anyway, most in the streets still feel the biggest threat to Tunisia's shaky democracy is from Ben Ali's allies, that they will co-opt the revolution. Protestor Souhlee Ahmed says he fears that much more than a military takeover.

Mr. SOUHLEE AHMED: The most dangerous thing for the revolution is the RCD, not the army. The army is with the people, with the revolution.

WESTERVELT: But how the power struggle will play out and how long the army will remain with the people before more openly asserting more control is unclear.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Tunis.

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