Protesters pile pressure on Tunisian govt

 New protests against PM, police join in complaints; interim PM pledges to step down after vote; meetings at prime minister's office
 
Protesters in Tunisia, emboldened by their overthrow of the president a week ago, took to the streets on Saturday to try and force out his lieutenants, whom they accuse of clinging to power in the face of popular anger.

Not satisfied with his pledge to quit once free elections can be held, hundreds surged past a half-hearted police cordon at the office of Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi. One banner read: "No place for men of tyranny in a unity government."

Ghannouchi, who stayed on to head a would-be unity coalition after strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled a week ago, made an emotional late-night plea for patience on television on Friday. He portrayed himself as a fellow victim and pledged to end his political career as soon as he could organise elections.

But as he met cabinet colleagues on Saturday, thousands -- including many policemen -- took to the streets of Tunis and other towns to push the momentum of the "Jasmine Revolution" and to reject what many deride as Ghannouchi's token attempt to co-opt a handful of little-known dissidents into his government.

One demonstrator outside the premier's office said: "We want to tell Mr Ghannouchi the definition of 'revolution' -- it means a radical change, not keeping on the same prime minister."

Moncef Marzouki, a secular dissident who returned from exile in Paris and hopes to run for president, urged the interim head of state -- previously the speaker of Ben Ali's rubber-stamp parliament -- to nominate a new, independent premier.

He said Gannouchi's presence was hampering, not helping, efforts to restore stability. But, mindful of the dozens of deaths so far this month and of the thirst for retribution against Ben Ali's clan and the organs of his police state, Marzouki urged those in the streets to stay calm: 

"The great thing is that this revolution has been peaceful," he said. "Please continue this way and don't get into revenge."

POLICE PROTEST

Even policemen, once the feared blunt instrument of Ben Ali's 24-year rule, were declaring changed loyalties -- in Tunis thousands joined in chant of "We are innocent of the blood of the martyrs!" at a rally to show their support for the revolt.

It was police harassment of a young vegetable seller last month that prompted him to set himself alight in protest at unemployment and corrupt rule, triggering the wave of unrest.

Such problems are common across the Arab world and the region's authoritarian leaders, many supported by Western powers as bulwarks against radical Islam, are watching the small North African state anxiously. 

In neighbouring Algeria, still scarred by an Islamist revolt in the 1990s against the ruling party, police used batons to stop a gathering by an opposition group.

In Saudi Arabia, a man burned himself to death. It was not clear if he was, like numerous others in Egypt and elsewhere, inspired by the suicide which ushered in the Tunisian drama. 

 ISLAMISTS EMERGE

After 55 years of stifling one-man rule since independence from France, Tunisians, let alone those outside, have little clear idea which leaders they would choose in a free vote.  A lack of a visible Islamist presence in Tunisia, which is fairly prosperous compared to some Arab states, may be partly due to severe repression of Islamist expression under Ben Ali. 

Salah Jourchi, a Tunisian expert on Islamist movements, said: "The Islamist movement was the most oppressed of all the opposition movements under Ben Ali. Its followers are also much greater in number than those of the secular opposition."

Much attention is on Rached Ghannouchi, exiled leader of the banned Islamist Ennahda, or Renaissance, movement which by some estimates may have won as much as a third of the vote in an election in 1989 whose results Ben Ali chose to ignore.

Ghannouchi, who is not related to the prime minister of that name, told Al-Jazeera on Saturday that his movement supported the democratic trend and should not be feared: "We are a moderate Islamic movement, a democratic movement based on democratic ideals in ... Islamic culture," he said. 

He called those who sympathise with the anti-democratic ideas of al Qaeda and others "extremist" and wrong-headed in their understanding of Islam. Referring to Iran's revolutionary Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, he said: "I am no Khomeini."

Clearly under pressure, Prime Minister Ghannouchi said on television late on Friday: "I lived like Tunisians and I feared like Tunisians." He added: "I pledge to stop all my political activity after my period leading the transitional government."

The response of the street protesters, who have electrified oppressed and impoverished Arabs from the Atlantic to the Gulf, was scornful: "Since 1990, Ghannouchi has been finance minister, then prime minister," said student Firass Hermassi outside Ghannouchi's office. "He knows everything, he's an accomplice."

It is unclear when elections for president and parliament might be held. Leaders of opposition groups say they may need six months to get Tunisians simply to know who they are.

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