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Tunisia's Days-Old Government Shows Cracks

Protesters hold up a Tunisian flag during a demonstration in the streets of Tunis on Tuesday.
Fred Dufour
AFP/Getty Images
Protesters hold up a Tunisian flag during a demonstration in the streets of Tunis on Tuesday.

Tunisia's newly formed unity government showed cracks Tuesday after a handful of ministers abruptly quit and an opposition party threatened to withdraw, moves that could further destabilize the North African nation days after fiery street protests toppled the country's long-time leader.

The country's interim president and prime minister also bowed to pressure and resigned from the ruling party of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia after his 23-year authoritarian grip was broken Friday. The move by Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi and acting President Fouad Mebazza, who will remain in their posts, was apparently intended to mollify criticism that the new government is too heavily represented by RCD members.

Tunisian state TV also announced that Ben Ali had been officially kicked out of the RCD.

The political pressure that brought down Ben Ali after 23 years in power continued Tuesday as hundreds of demonstrators massed in the capital, Tunis. Riot police in shielded helmets pummeled and kicked a protester and fired tear gas grenades into the crowd as protesters demanded that the Cabinet be purged of the old guard that served Ben Ali.

"I am afraid that our revolution will be stolen from me and my people. The people are asking for freedoms and this new government is not. They are the ones who oppressed the people for 22 years," said Ines Mawdud, a 22-year-old student among protesters at the demonstration.

At least three ministers resigned Tuesday. The lawmakers -- Junior Minister for Transportation and Equipment Anouar Ben Gueddour, Labor Minister Houssine Dimassi and minister without portfolio Abdeljelil Bedoui -- were all members of the powerful UGTT labor union, which helped mobilize the protests. It was not immediately clear whether the resignations could bring down the government unveiled Sunday, which has 40 full and junior ministers.

Meanwhile, state TV reported that one of the most vocal opposition parties, Ettajdid, issued a statement Tuesday that it planned to pull out of the coalition government if ministers from Ben Ali's party did not give up party membership.

The people are asking for freedoms and this new government is not. They are the ones who oppressed the people for 22 years.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, reporting from the capital, said most Tunisians are unhappy with the new government but that many others want to give the coalition a chance.

Despite the seemingly widespread view that all members of the previous regime are corrupt and culpable, "some opposition members insist that none of the members of the new government are dirty or have blood on their hands," Sarhaddi-Nelson said.

Ghannouchi, who took over as interim leader, said the decision to include ministers from Ben Ali's guard in the new government was necessary "because we need them in this phase." The provisional government has promised to hold elections within six months.

But the Cabinet also includes leading opposition voices such as Slim Amamou, who was named minister of youth and sports. Under the former regime, the blogger had been arrested and thrown in jail on charges of dissident speech and hacking government websites.

Ghannouchi has pledged to free political prisoners and lift restrictions on a leading human-rights group, the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights. On Monday, he said the government would create three state commissions to study political reform, investigate corruption and bribery, and examine abuses during the recent upheaval.

The protests that ended Ben Ali's regime began last month after an educated but unemployed 26-year-old man set himself on fire when police confiscated the fruit and vegetables he was selling without a permit. The desperate act hit a nerve, channeling anti-government anger over years of state repression, corruption and a shortage of jobs into a widespread revolt.

Tunisian officials said Monday that nearly 80 civilians have died since the unrest that began weeks ago and has spread to other parts of the region.

Apparently inspired by events in Tunisia, an Egyptian man set himself ablaze outside the prime minister's office in central Cairo on Tuesday -- the second such incident in the capital in as many days and a day after self-immolations in Mauritania and Algeria.

Initial reports said the man in Cairo, identified as lawyer Mohammed Farouq Mohammed el-Sayed, was protesting what he claimed to be the failure of police to find his long missing teenage daughter.

Matook Al-Faleh, a political science professor in Saudi Arabia, told NPR that Tunisia and other Arab nations share some of the same problems. "There is some kind of similarity, you know. For example, unemployment here [and] there is no participation here, no accountability for the government -- all Arab countries," he noted. Faleh said he has created a Facebook page where he has urged Tunisians to avoid violence and instead use the courts to hold their leaders to account.

But other experts believe it is incorrect to cast unrest in Tunisia as part of a wider movement in the Arab world.

"It's important to avoid thinking that the circumstances of one country are automatically replicated in another, even neighboring, country," British Foreign Minister William Hague told BBC Radio Tuesday during a visit to Australia.

Still, the Mediterranean nation -- an ally in the U.S. fight against terrorism and a popular tourist destination known for its wide beaches, deserts and ancient ruins -- had seemed more stable than many in the region, and Ben Ali's downfall has served as a wake-up call for other autocratic Arab leaders.

NPR's Deborah Amos in Riyadh and Eleanor Beardsley and Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Tunis contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press

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NPR Staff and Wires