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Tunisia Forms New Government Amid Protests

Protesters shouted slogans against former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali during a demonstration Monday in the center of Tunis.
Christophe Ena
Protesters shouted slogans against former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali during a demonstration Monday in the center of Tunis.

Tunisia's prime minister announced a national unity government on Monday, hoping to quell simmering unrest following the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali amid huge street protests.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, a longtime ally of Ben Ali, and several top ministers retained their posts in the shake-up -- and at least one top opposition leader was expected to join the government.

Tunisia's government said more than 78 protesters and other civilians have died in the protests, which have swept the country for a month. Interior Minister Ahmed Friaa said 94 civilians have been injured. And he said members of security forces also have been killed, but he did not say how many.

The move comes amid continued unrest after Ben Ali fled the North African country on Friday -- 23 years after he first took power.

Ghannouchi, who has been premier since 1999 and has kept his post throughout the upheaval, said the current ministers of defense, interior and foreign affairs would keep their posts.

Three opposition figures, including Nejib Chebbi, a founder of the opposition PDP party, will take up posts in the government -- a breakthrough in a country that the autocratic Ben Ali led for more than two decades.

Many opponents of Ben Ali's rule have taken to the streets to express their hopes that the new government would not include any remnants of his iron-fisted regime.

Earlier Monday, security forces fired tear gas to repel angry demonstrators ahead of the announcement of the new government. Some protesters demanded that Ben Ali's former cronies be locked out.

"Ben Ali must be judged," read one sign in English at the demonstration, whose protesters soon dispersed. Some were demanding that Ben Ali's ruling party be locked out of any future power-sharing arrangement.

The European Union said Monday that it stands ready to help Tunisia become a democracy and will offer economic aid. EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said the 27-nation bloc is willing to "prepare and organize the electoral process" in Tunisia.

Finance Minister Christine Lagarde of France -- a former colonial overseer of Tunisia -- told French radio that Paris is keeping a close watch on the assets of Tunisians in French banks.

After years of living under Ben Ali's feared police squads, Tunisians now look to the army to keep them safe.

On Sunday, a fierce gun battle raged in central Tunis. For three hours the sounds of shooting cracked through the air, and a helicopter circled overhead. Citizens were confined indoors long before their usual eight o'clock curfew.

Those in hotels were told to stay away from windows because of sniper fire. Earlier in the day, the army arrested Ben Ali's security chief, who was accused of ordering the killings of civilians and plotting against the state. Human rights activist Masoud Ramdhani said the gunfight broke out as the army tried to root out other members of Ben Ali's elite police force.

Ramdhani and other Tunisians say Ben Ali's henchmen are sowing chaos to try to make the country fail. The former Tunisian president built his system with the help of his powerful police force. According to one European human rights report, they played a role in all political, social and cultural aspects of Tunisian life.

Tunisians downright loathe Ben Ali's personal security police, especially since his forces opened fire on protesters over the past month. Cell phone videos posted on Facebook showing the killing of protesters by police snipers enraged people and helped stoke the revolution.

An NPR reporter witnessed policemen beating young protesters with truncheons in a back alley under her hotel window just before Ben Ali fled. Minutes later, a frightened young man knocked at the reporter's door, asking if she could hide him from the police.

Since Ben Ali's departure, the veil of fear is slowly lifting. Benusef Houtman, 60, explained -- out on the open streets -- how Tunisians feel about the police and the army. He said he never would have talked so openly a week ago.

Houtman said he and other Tunisians welcome the army. It's seen as a professional force that's politically neutral. The army also refused Ben Ali's orders to fire on protesters. Now, Houtman said, the army is protecting the Tunisian people from Ben Ali's thugs.

Moncef Marzouki is the head of a Tunisian opposition party and has been living in exile in Paris for the past decade. He'll be coming home this week to take part in Tunisia's new democracy.

"All the Tunisian people are confident in the army," he said, "that they will stop these gangs who are trying to sow confusion, and that they will be the guarantor of our peaceful transition to democracy."

In the power vacuum left by Ben Ali, officials are scrambling to set up an interim government and restore order. But many Tunisians believe the gravest danger is conflict between the military and the well-armed squads of security police. Sunday night's gun battle suggests they may be right.

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NPR Staff and Wires