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20 June 2024

Tunisia government unveils new freedoms


Tunisia unveiled a new government Monday to prepare elections within six months, promising unprecedented freedoms in the once tightly-controlled country although the old regime held on to key posts.

"We have decided to free all the people imprisoned for their ideas, their beliefs or for having expressed dissenting opinions," Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi told reporters in the capital Tunis, adding: "We announce total freedom of information."

The new authority also put a cost to weeks of turmoil that forced president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee Friday after 23 years in power, saying 78 people had been killed and the economy had lost 1.6 billion euros (2.2 billion dollars).

Ghannouchi announced that he would remain as head of the transitional government, which will prepare for historic presidential and parliamentary elections within a maximum of six months.

His Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) also retained the key foreign, interior, defence and finance ministries, even after hundreds demanded in protests in Tunis and other cities Monday that the party be abolished.

The protests were broken up by riot police as a ban on public assemblies remains in place, as well as a strict dusk-to-dawn curfew amid continued fears over the security situation following gunfights in Tunis on Sunday.

The new government includes three leaders of the legal opposition as well as some representatives of civil society, with a dissident blogger arrested under Ben Ali named as secretary of state for youth and sports.

But it excluded banned political parties including the Communists and the Islamist Ennahdha, although Ghannouchi said that all political parties would now be legalised and that strictly-controlled media would be freed.

Restrictions would also be lifted on non-governmental organisations including Tunisia's main human rights group, the Human Rights League, and all political prisoners held by the previous regime would be freed, he said.

"We have decided to allow all associations to have normal activities without any interference on the part of the government," Ghannouchi said.

Moncef Marzouki, a dissident living in Paris who has announced that he would stand for the presidency in the future polls, immediately branded the new government a "masquerade" still dominated by Ben Ali's supporters.

"Tunisia deserved much more," the secular leftist said.

"A unity government in name only because, in reality, it is made up of members of the party of dictatorship, the RCD," he said on French channel I-Tele.

The Communist party, which is still banned in Tunisia, also slammed the new government saying it was the old regime in a new guise.

With Tunisia in chaos since Ben Ali's downfall -- which followed weeks of popular revolt in which security forces opened fire on protesters -- United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon called for the "prompt restoration" of the rule of law.

Interior Minister Ahmed Friaa said 78 people were killed and 94 injured, several times more than the last official figure of 21 dead issued on January 11, a few days before the president fled.

He also announced losses to the state equivalent to around four percent of Tunisia's 2010 gross domestic product, according to an AFP calculation based on International Monetary Fund economic data.

Friaa said two-thirds of the losses were due to the disruption of economic activity during protests and one-third was due to lost export revenues.

Economic activity has virtually ground to a halt in Tunisia, with most shops and banks still closed following reports of looting and gunfights.

Thousands of tourists -- a key source of revenue -- have fled.

Police fired tear gas and water cannon and shot live rounds in the air in the capital again earlier Monday to disperse hundreds of protesters demanding the abolishing of Ben Ali's party following heavy gunfire on Sunday.

"The revolution continues! RCD out!" they shouted.

"Bread and water and no RCD!" hundreds more shouted in Sidi Bouzid, where a December 17 self-immolation suicide in an anti-government protest unleashed the movement that forced strongman Ben Ali to flee.

"Things are gradually getting back to normal and security conditions are improving," Friaa told reporters.

"But we have to stay vigilant because there are dangerous elements who want to create chaos," he added.

Ben Ali's ouster in what has been dubbed the Jasmine Revolution sent shockwaves around the Arab world as he became the first Arab leader in recent history to be forced out by street protests.

Fierce gun battles broke out Sunday in Tunis and near the presidential palace in nearby Carthage. There were also clashes near the interior ministry.

"The old regime is trying to sow panic in the population," said Mustapha Ben Ahmed, a trade unionist, as he walked along the central Avenue Bourguiba. "That bastard Ben Ali ran away and left the country to burn."

A Swiss lawyer on Monday filed a legal request to freeze any assets held by Ben Ali in Switzerland, and said he had also asked for an international arrest warrant against the ex-president for ordering police to fire on protesters.

Tunisia's top diplomat Kamel Morjane meanwhile briefed his Arab counterparts at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, in the first visit abroad by a member of his country's new transitional government, an official who attended the ministerial meeting preparing an economic summit told reporters on condition of anonymity.