Protesters clash in Tunis as political deadlock persists


SCUFFLES BROKE out between supporters and opponents of Tunisia’s interim government yesterday as talks aimed at resolving the country’s political impasse continued.

Groups of demonstrators have held daily protests in Tunis for the past week to denounce the presence in the unity cabinet of senior ministers linked to the RCD party of deposed president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Yesterday, hundreds of Tunisians supportive of the new coalition turned out out in the capital for the first time. Carrying placards with slogans such as “Have patience, there is no magic wand” and “The people support the government to save the revolution”, they called on the public to back the coalition as it prepares for free elections in six months.

While they have been less vocal than opponents of the government, those who support it reflect a considerable share of opinion. A Facebook page set up by organisers of yesterday’s march has attracted more than 40,000 members.

They argue that chaos could ensue if all RCD members, the only politicians with experience of government, were to be immediately purged from the state apparatus.

Scuffles and angry exchanges broke out as the two groups, numbering about 1,500, clashed on Bourguiba Avenue.

At the nearby prime minister’s office, meanwhile, thousands attended another day of demonstrations against the interim government. The protesters – many of whom travelled from southern Tunisia at the weekend and have defied the curfew by sleeping at the entrance to the old city – were dispersed by police on Monday, but their numbers appeared to have increased yesterday.

Gen Rashid Ammar, head of the army and a revered figure whose reputation was enhanced by his reported refusal of an order from Ben Ali to fire at protesters, addressed the crowds on Monday to try to persuade them to stand down. “Our revolution is your revolution. The revolution of the youth could be lost and could be exploited by those who call for a vacuum,” he said.

Discussions were continuing on a political gesture that would placate anti-government protesters, with speculation rife that a cabinet reshuffle may be accompanied by the naming of a council of “wise men” to oversee the government for the next six-months.

Government spokesman Taieb Baccouche, who is a human rights activist, said he was in favour of the retention of ministers who served under Ben Ali in the interim cabinet. He said the imminent reshuffle would be used to replace five ministers who resigned last week and that further resignations were possible.

Foreign minister Kamel Morjane, who held the same post under Ben Ali, said he was ready to step down “at any moment” but that the country’s future must be built by Tunisians of all backgrounds and persuasions.

With most shops having reopened and economic life having largely resumed in much of the Tunisian capital, the main teachers’ union last night announced an end to an open-ended strike.