Unity Government Fails To Quell Tunisia Violence
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
In Tunisia today, a new coalition government was unveiled. The move is meant to quell civil unrest that led to the ouster last week of the country's longtime president. The coalition includes some opposition groups for the first time. But it also retains key members of the ousted regime. And there is no mention of new elections.
Officials acknowledge they'll have a tough time persuading Tunisians who want a clean start to give this new government a chance.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in the capital, Tunis, and sent this report.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Tunisian opposition member Ahmad Buasi(ph) acknowledges the coalition is far from perfect - even if it does, for the first time, include groups like his progressive Democratic Party. He says about a third of the new government worked for the old regime, including Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, as well as the foreign defense and interior ministers, all longtime allies of the Tunisian president who fled last week.
But Buasi is adamant any regime members who are keeping their jobs are technocrats whose hands are quote, not dirty. He adds the coalition is temporary, but vital to keeping the country running until elections can be held.
Mr. AHMED BUASI (Member, Democratic Party): And we will be going around the country to explain to people what's going on, that we keep their demands with us. And we will not participate in any election that does not respond to their demands.
NELSON: But persuading Tunisians to accept their new government isn't going to be easy.
(Soundbite of protest)
NELSON: Even before the new coalition government was announced, about a thousand people gathered in Independence Square in the capital, to protest against it. One of the protesters was Realtor Mosan Matthews(ph).
Mr. MOSAN MATTHEWS: They're trying to keep the same system.
Mr. LUTFIT BIN AZIZA(ph): (Speaking foreign language)
NELSON: Fellow protester Lutfit bin Aziza adds he and others here won't let the revolution be co-opted. He says they won't be satisfied until every last vestige of former President Zain al-Abadin bin Ali's government is gone.
Mr. HALID HAMILA(ph): We are not afraid. We are not afraid.
NELSON: That's Halid Hamila, who waived his fist at an army helicopter overhead.
(Soundbite of helicopter)
Mr. HAMILA: No fear. No more fear. It's the country of freedom. This is a free country.
NELSON: Still, Hamila believes Tunisians should give the coalition government a chance.
Mr. HAMILA: This is my opinion, and I think it's the opinion of so many citizens -who think that what we need right now is peace.
NELSON: Hamila believes the coalition has a responsibility, too. He says the new government must waste no time getting the country back on track.
Mr. HAMILA: I need to go back to work. I need my students to come back to my classes. I need to see bread everywhere, to see food everywhere. You see, if they are patriots, if they love this country, they should do the same as I'm telling you now.
(Soundbite of protesters)
NELSON: The protest continued for more than an hour. A crowd of several hundred people gathered to sing the Tunisian national anthem. Later, security forces used water cannons and tear gas, and fired shots in the air to disperse the crowd. A curfew is once again in effect across the capital this evening, in hopes of keeping looting to a minimum.
Mr. NAJIB SHABI (Minister of Local Development, Tunisia): (Speaking foreign language)
NELSON: Najib Shabi, an opposition member who is part of the new coalition, appeared on Tunisian state television to urge calm, and to assure Tunisians that their demands will be heard. The interim coalition has also called for the release of political prisoners. They've also announced the creation of several commissions to investigate corruption as well as abuses during the popular uprising.
What was notably absent from all the speeches and press releases was the mention of any elections to establish a permanent government. Under Tunisia's constitution, those elections need to be held in 60 days. But some opposition members say more time is needed to put in place measures to ensure the polls are free and fair.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Tunis.
BLOCK: A word now about a disturbing pattern across North Africa. In Tunisia, those protests began after a street vendor set himself on fire. He was reportedly protesting police harassment. His fruit and vegetable stand had been confiscated by police because he didn't have the right permits.
Well, in Egypt, a restaurant owner set himself on fire in front of parliament today. He survived with light burns after witnesses put out the flames with fire extinguishers. In Mauritania, a man also set himself on fire, and died in front of the parliament building. And in Algeria, there have been multiple reports of similar incidents.
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