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Monday, January 17, 2011

Tunisia Names Unity Government - NYTimes.com

Tunisia Names Unity Government - NYTimes.com

TUNIS — The interim government of Tunisia struggled Monday to contain a new wave of protests as the prime minister announced a unity coalition cabinet with members of ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s ruling party in the most significant posts.

Later, in an extraordinary public announcement, the interior minister, Ahmed Friaa, went on television to announce that 78 protesters and other civilians had died and 94 had been injured in clashes with security forces before Mr. Ben Ali stepped down, The Associated Press reported.

The news of the new government drew an immediate popular response. More than a thousand demonstrators swelled into the streets of downtown chanting for the complete eradication of the old ruling party and demanding their freedom. “Citizens and martyrs, the government is still the same!” they chanted.

Soldiers stationed around the city initially attempted to contain the crowd with rifle shots in the air and water cannons. But when the crowd surged toward the headquarters of the interior ministry, the police — widely blamed for much of the recent violence here — let loose with tear gas, flooding the central Bourguiba Avenue with noxious fumes once again.

Smaller protests regrouped and continued. “Long live the people, long live the military,” the protestors chanted, reflecting the popular conviction that the military has stepped in to protect the people from marauding police officers, some still loyal to Mr. Ben Ali.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, a close ally of Mr. Ben Ali, announced that the new unity government negotiated with the recognized opposition parties would include ministers of the interior, state, finance and defense taken from the old ruling party. Leaders of the recognized opposition parties assumed lesser posts. Najib Chebbi, the founder of the biggest and most credible recognized opposition party, the Progressive Democratic Party, was made minister of regional development.

The Communist and Islamist parties, which have been outlawed, were excluded from the talks and the unity government. And their officials bitterly denounced the new coalition.

A spokesman for the biggest opposition party officials defended the deal, arguing that they had rid the cabinet of the former members with the most responsibility for the corruption and brutality of the former government. He argued that Tunisia faced a choice between Somalia-like chaos, a new strongman emerging as a savior, or making do with the current government until it could manage to hold free elections within a few months.

Though protesters chanted for the ruling party to be driven out altogether, in reality, after more than 50 years of one-party rule, there are few people outside the ruling party with the experience and expertise to steer the government.

Military tanks and security forces are still a heavy presence in Tunis, although cafes and businesses began to reopen on Monday, and life returned to the streets. The security forces allowed the demonstrations to build for a few hours, but then fired shots into the air, followed by occasional blasts from a water cannon to disperse the crowd.

After the former government’s swift and ruthless attacks on any unauthorized public gathering, however, the protesters seemed to revel in the relatively gentle response. “A shower,” one man said in French, his suit and overcoat soaking wet. A man in red shoes danced in the puddles in front of the chanting crowd.

About 12:30 p.m., the protesters surged toward the headquarters of the Interior Ministry, and the police evidently decided to bring the demonstrations to an end. It was unclear whether the police acted alone or in concert with the military’s troops, who appeared to be at the other end of the crowd.

Protesters chanted about the power of the people and called for free and transparent elections.

In announcing the official death toll for the month of protests, Mr. Friaa said members of the security forces also had been killed, but he did not say how many. And he said that 85 police stations, 13 town halls, 43 banks, 11 factories and 66 stores or shopping centers had been damaged in the violence, The A.P. reported.

There were also new signs that others in the Arab world may be seeking to emulate the Tunisian example. A young Egyptian set himself on fire outside Parliament in Cairo, imitating the Tunisian in the town of Sidi Bouzid whose self-immolation a month ago set off the wave of protests that ousted Mr. Ben Ali. Another man tried to set himself on fire in Mauritania on Monday.

In Algeria, four men set themselves on fire in the last week.

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