Tunisia plans unity government, fragile peace holds

Monday, 17 January 2011 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian politicians were holding talks on Sunday to try to form a unity government to help maintain a fragile calm two days after President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted by violent protests.

Tanks were stationed around the capital Tunis and soldiers were guarding public buildings, but after a day of drive-by shootings and jailbreaks in which dozens of inmates were killed, residents said they were starting to feel more secure.

“Last night we surrounded our neighbourhood with roadblocks and had teams checking cars. Now we are in the process of lifting the roadblocks and getting life back to normal” said a man, Imed, in the city’s Intilaka suburb.

Sunday is not a working day in Tunisia and the streets were quiet, but some people were moving about. For the first time in several days, a handful of commercial vehicles -- vans and pick-up trucks -- could be seen moving about with deliveries.

The only occasional sounds of gunfire overnight were a marked change from the heavy shooting the previous night.

The speaker of parliament Fouad Mebazza, sworn in as interim president, has asked Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi to form a government of national unity and constitutional authorities said a presidential election should be held within 60 days.

Ghannouchi is due to hold more coalition talks on Sunday to try to fill the vacuum left when Ben Ali, president for more than 23 years, fled to Saudi Arabia following a month of violent anti-government protests that claimed dozens of lives.

Analysts say there may be more protests if the opposition is not sufficiently represented, and the talks may run into trouble when they down to the detail of which parties get which cabinet post and how many of the old guard are included.

Ahmed Ibrahim, head of the opposition Ettajdid party, said he and other party leaders would meet Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi on Sunday for more talks on forming a coalition government, but he did not say what time.

“The main thing for us right now is to stop all this disorder. We are in agreement on several principles concerning the new government. We will continue to discuss. My message is to say no to Gaddafi: we do not want to go backwards,” he said, in reference to a speech on Saturday by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi who said Tunisians were too hasty to get rid of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Opposition parties are seeking assurances that presidential elections will be free, that they will have adequate time to campaign, that the country will move toward greater democracy and that the power of the ruling RCD party will be loosened.

Two opposition parties have also already said the two-month deadline for holding elections is too soon.

Opposition leader Najib Chebbi said after talks with Ghannouchi on Saturday that elections could be held under international supervision within six or seven months.

The ousting of Tunisia’s president after widespread protests could embolden Arab opposition movements and citizens to challenge entrenched governments across the Middle East.

As well as soldiers patrolling the streets of Tunis, residents have been manning their own barricades to protect their property from looters and other attackers.

“We are coordinating well with the military and we are beginning to feel some security,” said Samir, a 26-year-old in the center of Tunis. Nearby, local women were bringing cups of coffee to men who had spent the night in the street guarding against violent gangs.

Gunmen fired at random from cars in Tunis on Saturday. It was not clear who the assailants were but a senior military source told Reuters that people still loyal to Ben Ali were behind the shootings.

In the chic Belvedere Park neighbourhood, residents had used rubbish bins, tree branches and lumps of concrete to block off entrances to their streets.

Western and Arab powers have called for calm and unity.

The French government called on Tunisia to hold free elections as soon as possible and said it had taken steps “to ensure suspicious financial movements concerning Tunisian assets in France are blocked administratively”.

In Washington, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said Ben Ali’s departure could give the Tunisian people a say in how they are governed and if elections are free and fair it would deal a blow to the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb militant group.

Hundreds of European tourists stranded by the unrest were flown home on emergency flights. Tunisian air space, closed on Friday, was reopened and the official news agency said all airports were open.

Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne said there had been about 5-6,000 Britons in Tunisia before violence broke out and there were now about 2,500, with 1,500 of these expected to return in the next 24 hours.