A woman places a kiss on an army tank on Avenue Bourghiba as an uneasy peace hangs over Tunisia. Picture: Getty Images

Tunisia ransacked as Zine El Abidine Ben Ali flees
The Australian
January 17, 2011

TUNISIA'S acting leaders looked into political reforms following the end of former strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's 23-year rule. The Arab state veered towards chaos after two replacements for Mr Ben Ali were installed within 24 hours.

Mr Ben Ali abruptly fled the country on Saturday (AEDT) for Saudi Arabia following mass street protests over corruption, a lack of jobs and clampdowns on civil liberties. The leadership changes then came at a dizzying speed. Mr Ben Ali's long-time ally, prime minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, stepped in briefly with a vague assumption of power that left open the possibility that Mr Ben Ali could return. But the head of the Constitutional Council declared the president's departure permanent and gave Fouad Mebazaa, the parliamentary Speaker, 60 days to organise new elections.

Soldiers and tanks were deployed around the capital, Tunis, yesterday after shops and homes were looted and vandals set fire to the main railway station. The crackle of gunfire echoed in the largely deserted streets of the city centre, which was sealed off by security forces to prevent protests. Tunisia has been under a state of emergency since Friday, with public gatherings banned and a strict dusk-to-dawn curfew in force.

Still, the mood among many citizens appeared joyful. Many were relieved at the announcement that passed power into the Speaker of parliament's hands according to the constitution. "Today is the first day I am proud to be Tunisian," said lawyer Noureddinne Jerbi. "Ben Ali is gone, his family are gone and the rule of law is being respected," he said. Mr Mebazaa, 78, said all Tunisians "without exception" would be able to take part in national politics. "A unity government is necessary in the greater national interest," he said.

Mr Ghannouchi started to sound out political parties and other groupings on an open political system aimed at breaking with that of Mr Ben Ali. Well-known figures filed into the prime minister's office over the weekend, where they were received separately, according to Mustapha Ben Jaffar, head of the Democratic Forum for Work and Freedoms. "The discussions revolved around measures to lay the basis for a real democratic process and turn the page on a failed system," said Mr Ben Jaffar. Mr Ghannouchi was to meet those players last night to discuss the composition of a government of national unity and holding elections under international supervision. Mr Ben Ali's party would not be left out of the process, Mr Ben Jaffar added.

The exiled head of the main Tunisian Islamist party, which was banned by Mr Ben Ali, said he now planned to return to his homeland. "The Tunisian intifada has succeeded in collapsing the dictatorship," said Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahdha party, speaking from London.

There were chaotic scenes in and around Tunis over the weekend: luxury cars were seen smashed and abandoned, and shops and homes had been pillaged and burnt. The violence appeared to target the property of Mr Ben Ali's family in particular. Mr Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia after a wave of protests sparked by the suicide of a 26-year-old university graduate prevented by police from selling fruit and vegetables to make a living. Human rights groups said dozens of people had been killed in the protests, which escalated into a popular movement against unemployment, poverty and the alleged corruption of the ruling elite. As tensions grew, thousands of holidaymakers were evacuated from the Mediterranean nation's beach resorts, and Europe and the US advised citizens against non-essential travel to the country.


Scorched earth claim in Tunisia chaos
The Australian
The Times, Agencies
January 18, 2011

THE Tunisian army attacked loyalists of ousted strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali at the palace in Carthage yesterday. The former president has been accused of plotting to reclaim power by asking Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi to provoke a civil war.

Before the assault in Carthage, a historical area on the outskirts of the capital, state media reported that the head of the presidential guard had been arrested on charges of threatening state security by fomenting violence. There were gun battles around Tunis yesterday, with security forces shooting dead two gunmen hiding in a building near the Interior Ministry and exchanging fire with others close to the headquarters of the main opposition Progressive Democratic Party. The shooting erupted in the middle of the afternoon amid fears that sacked members of the presidential guard were trying to create mayhem in the Mediterranean tourist destination.

Many Tunisians fear the Libyan leader will intervene to prevent the popular revolt spreading to his neighbouring country. Mezri Haddad, who resigned last week as Tunisia's ambassador to UNESCO in protest against Mr Ben Ali's rule, said the former president had sought Mr Gaddafi's help for a "scorched earth" policy. "He gave weapons and lots of money to his close protection teams and his loyalists so that they could provoke civil war on his departure from Tunisia. He gave them the order to launch operations well before he fled," Mr Haddad said. "He sought Libya's aid to intervene. All this has only one goal: to retake power."

The fighting is the heaviest since the so-called Jasmine Revolt against Mr Ben Ali began a month ago, December 17, after Mohammed Bouazizi, an unemployed computer graduate, set himself on fire and later died in hospital after police confiscated his street vendor stand.

Click here for that initial riot as reported by Al Jazeera.

A police official said more than 50 people had been arrested on suspicion of using rented cars and an ambulance for drive-by shootings. The home of Houssam Trabelsi, a nephew to Mr Ben Ali's wife Leila, was trashed and looted by citizens disgusted at the crass opulence in which the first family lived. They found spa baths, birth certificates for horses and bills for parties costing thousands of dollars. "It is the money of our nation," said 13-year-old Fathi as he stripped bits of copper and silver from one of Mr Trabelsi's Mercedes. "It is the money of my mother, my father. We just want justice."

Residents around the city put up makeshift barricades to protect their homes from looting. Noureddine Boutan, director of Radio Mosaiques, said he had been receiving death threats after the station began broadcasting uncensored news. "I have not slept for two nights. The first night I spent defending the radio station and the second night I looked after my wife and kids. There is a security problem with the militia of the former president," he said.

Before the gunfire broke out, there were the first signs yesterday of Tunisians celebrating their revolt. Fares Bouslimi, a teacher, walked down the capital's main street picking up litter. "I am proud of my people because they have decided to overthrow the dictator. I am here to celebrate," he said. "I took part in the demonstration. It was a revolution." But others feared food shortages as security forces continued their lockdown of the city centre. "We don't have enough bread and flour. We risk a food crisis if this continues," said Najla, who was filling her basket with meat and vegetables at the main market in Tunis. Fishmongers were selling two- and three-day-old fish, said Ezzedine Gaesmi, a salesman at the indoor market in Tunis, where many stands were empty. "There's no fresh fish. If it continues for two or three more days, we'll close," he said.

Lucas Dolega, a 32-year-old French-German photographer with the European Pressphoto Agency, was in a critical condition yesterday, the French consulate said, after being shot in the head with a teargas cartridge. He was earlier reported to have died of his injuries. A group of Swedes who came to Tunisia to hunt wild boar were attacked by a mob and roughed up by police, who accused them of being "foreign terrorists". Six of the men were released, but three remain in police custody.


Resignations rattle new Tunisia regime
The Australian
Margaret Coker, Tunis, The Wall Street Journal
January 19, 2011

The opposition members of Tunisia's caretaker government quit last night just 24 hours after their appointment, as thousands marched against the inclusion of ministers from the regime of overthrown dictator Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali. The ministers from the UGTT trade union resigned after the union refused to recognise the country's new leadership, undermining Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi's hopes of quelling unrest by forming a new unity government.

It was not clear if the resignations of junior Transport Minister Anouar Ben Gueddour, Labour Minister Houssine Dimassi and Minister without Portfolio Abdeljelil Bedoui would cause the government to fall. Last night thousands of protesters marched in the central cities of Sfax, Regueb, Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid against the inclusion of Mr Ghannouchi, Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane and six other ministers from the old regime.

The caretaker government will run affairs until fresh elections, which the constitution mandates be held within 60 days.

Mr Ben Ali was Tunisia's president for 23 years before protests erupted over the past month against unemployment and lack of opportunity, and against corruption in the presidential family. He fled to Saudi Arabia on Friday, the first leader in the broader Middle East felled by popular uprising in almost two decades, and has triggered a spate of self-immolations across the region inspired by the young man whose death triggered the revolt.

The army is credited for decisions that led to Mr Ben Ali's sudden departure and in helping maintain a relative calm since. Tunisian and European officials briefed on Tunisia's government collapse credit military chief of staff Rachid Ammar with refusing an order to open fire on demonstrators last week. They said that in the tense 72 hours after Mr Ben Ali fled, General Ammar's soldiers took the lead in stabilising the nation, giving civilian leaders the space to fill the political vacuum.

Tunisia's armed forces and General Ammar have shown little personal political ambition, and that has added to the optimism expressed by opposition figures and citizens that the country could institute real political reforms. "The army has proven itself loyal to Tunisians and a strong institution," said Ahmad Bouazzi, an opposition leader who participated in the weekend coalition government discussions. No security or military officer took part in the discussions to form a caretaker government. Apart from the new heads of the interior and defence ministries, officials with a security background are not prominent in the cabinet.

Mr Ghannounchi said the government was committed to releasing all political prisoners and investigating cases of corruption.

The Tunisian army, which numbers about 27,000 troops, has not exerted much influence on the country's recent history. Deployed solely to control borders, it has been largely on the sidelines in the police state that grew under Mr Ben Ali's rule.

Internal security forces were called in to crush nationwide protests that began last month, and the army's intervention last Wednesday is seen as a turning point that helped bring about Mr. Ben Ali's demise. On the previous weekend, internal security forces opened fire on demonstrators in the provincial town of Kasserine in one of the bloodiest clashes during the month-long protests against Mr Ben Ali's regime. But Tunisian and European officials say that when demonstrations erupted in Kasserine on Wednesday, General Ammar refused a presidential order for the army to open fire.

By Thursday, video clips posted on the Internet showed incidents in which soldiers clearly intervened to keep security forces from beating or shooting protesters. On Saturday, Tunisians kissed soldiers manning tanks around key installations in the capital. The army's prestige rose even further over the weekend as special forces launched mop-up operations to fight and arrest police units that the acting government said were allied with the former regime. "Our army … moved in to protect us, not to work against us," one man said.


Tunisia's civil servants revolt
The Australian
The Times
January 21, 2011

TUNIS: Tunisia's revolution reached the corridors of power yesterday as civil servants rebelled against the new caretaker government and street protests continued in an attempt to rid the country of the remnants of the old regime. At the Ministry of Youth and Sport, staff packed the corridors and stairwell to force the departure of their new minister and his old, politically appointed chief of staff. The aim of the civil servants' uprising was to force the national unity government to drop members of ousted president Zine El Abedine Ben Ali's ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party. The new government said yesterday it was confiscating all assets of the former ruling party.

At the ministry, staff quickly convinced Slim Amamou, the new Secretary of State and a former jailed dissident blogger who was on his first day on the job, not to start work. "I went to the Ministry of Youth for the transfer of power. There was a demo, no transfer but a big argument," he said on Twitter. "The officials of my ministry don't want any government, including me and my minister." Mr Amamou later attended the first cabinet meeting and tweeted live from inside the room. "Everyone hates Ben Ali," he reported. Hrichi Hedi, the chief of staff at the Youth Ministry, put up more resistance to stepping down. Civil servants crowded around his office door, remonstrating with him. Finally, he agreed to leave the building. He was escorted to the carpark by his own rebellious staff, who took the keys of his official car. To cheers, he left in the car of a friend. "We just want to put an end to the RCD," one civil servant said. "Now we will return to our offices to wait." Similar staff uprisings have already taken place at state television, two state-run newspapers and, it is reported, at private firms controlled by the former president's family. Filmmakers held an extraordinary meeting to oust the party-approved head of their union.

The protests shifted yesterday from the hated Interior Ministry to the RCD's skyscraper headquarters on Avenue Mohammed V, blocking the main artery into the city. Thousands of demonstrators gathered outside, tearing down the party sign. Soldiers fired into the air but demonstrators later put flowers in the barrels of their guns. "We are demanding the departure of the RCD because the RCD is not a party. It's an intelligence service. It's an armed militia," said Hafeh Mesrati, a physics professor. "They destroyed the country. They follow people and threaten them. That is what they do. We have to destroy the RCD machine because it's dangerous."

Khemissi Slaheddine, an unemployed philosophy professor, blamed the party for the fact that he could not find work. "I am a trade unionist. Because I am not RCD, I cannot find work in Tunisia. In Ben Ali's time, anyone who did not work with the RCD could not find work," he said. One father, Ahmad al-Ouni, brought his children aged eight and four to the demonstration with a backpack of snacks and juice. "I want them to smell their free country and to see the new Tunis without fear," Mr al-Ouni said while his children used coloured pens to draw Tunisian flags on paper.

At least 33 members of Mr Ben Ali's family have reportedly been taken into custody as they tried to flee the country. Prosecutors are investigating overseas bank accounts, property and other assets held by Mr Ben Ali and his wife, Leila al-Trabelsi, and their relatives. Pictures of jewellery, expensive watches and international credit cards seized from members of the ruling family have been broadcast.

The central bank, meanwhile, had a change of leadership, as a senior World Bank official returned to his native Tunisia to take over the bank. Mustapha Kamel Nabli replaced Taoufik Baccar, who resigned following rumours that Mrs Trabelsi had fled with a huge stash of gold. The bank issued a statement denying reports that 1.5 tonnes of gold had been embezzled. Swiss officials have frozen all assets tied to the Ben Ali family, and the EU is considering a similar move. Samir Aounallah, the president of the Tunisian Committee for Museums, called for the recovery of major archeological pieces taken from state museums to decorate the villas of the ousted president's relatives.


Tunisia's interim leader sets election date
Weekend Australian
March 5, 2011

TUNISIA will hold an election on July 24 to choose an assembly to write a new post-revolution constitution. The interim president made the announcement yesterday, meeting a key demand of government critics. "We declare today the start of a new era … in the framework of a new political system that breaks definitely from the deposed regime," interim Tunisian President Foued Mebazaa said in a televised address to the nation.

Tunisia's interim authorities, in power since the ousting in January of longtime leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, have faced weeks of protests and calls to move ahead more quickly with democratic reforms. Despite introducing unprecedented freedoms and pledging elections by mid-July, the interim administration has still been heavily criticised. Interim prime minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, who held the same post under Mr Ben Ali, quit on Sunday after clashes at anti-government demonstrations left five people dead. Two ministers followed him on Monday and three more on Tuesday.

Mr Mebazaa said the July 24 vote would be for the "formation of a national constituent assembly that will develop a new constitution". He said the current constitution "does not meet the aspirations of the people after the revolution" and was "an obstacle to transparent elections". Mr Mebazaa, whose mandate under the current constitution expires on March 15, said that "contrary to rumours" he would remain in his post after the deadline. "I commit … to continuing my mission at the expiration of the time limit on March 15," he said. The president and a new transitional government to be formed by interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi would create a "public authority" that would cease functioning once the constituent assembly was elected, he said.

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