After Ben Ali left the country, his longtime ally Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi put together a national unity government and promised to hold elections. Former head of the parliament Foued Mebazaa is acting as interim president. Many posts in the government are still held by members or former members of Ben Alis Constitutional Democratic Rally party (RCD).
A liberation caravan of 1,000 demonstrators from small towns and rural areas, many of them farmers or farm workers, arrived in Tunis January 23 chanting, Down with the regime, down with the former party, down with the interim president and with the prime minister.
The caravan started out January 22 in Menzel Bouzayane, located in the same southern province as Sidi Bouzid, where the protests that swept Ben Ali from power began. Participants walked 30 miles before heading by bus, car, truck, and motorcycle to make the rest of the trip to Tunis, some 200 miles away.
Sanitation workers have joined demonstrations and teachers have gone on strike, demanding the resignation of ministers who had been part of the RCD. Workers walked out of the state-run shipping company and demanded the resignation of the company chairman, who they accused of embezzlement. They stole the nations money, Sofiyan Abu Sami, one of the striking shipping workers told the press. Our company is like a little example of what was wrong with Tunisia.
Bookstores are openly selling books that had been banned by the Ben Ali regime. According to El País, a daily in Spain, all along Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the main thoroughfare in Tunis, anyone can stand on a bench, like a London Speakers corner, and give a speech. They are frequently applauded.
Under pressure from the continuing protests, the government has released hundreds of political prisoners, ended bans on many opposition parties, and promised to call rapid elections, though without setting a date. But as many as 1,500 people, mostly on trumped up charges of terrorism, are still in jail. A majority-women crowd demonstrated outside the Justice Ministry in Tunis January 24 demanding their relatives be freed. The antiterror laws are oppressive and unjust, Asma Ksouri told Reuters.
The Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), the only legal union in Tunisia under Ben Ali, at first opposed the demonstrations that began in December when street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after cops confiscated his fruits and vegetables and slapped him in front of passersby. But as the movement grew, protesting high food prices, unemployment, and government repression, the UGTT joined the protests and is now backing calls to remove RCD supporters from the government.
Many of the opposition parties, including Ettajdid, the former Communist Party, had collaborated with Ben Ali since he overthrew the previous ruler, Habib Bourguiba, in 1987. Other opposition parties are little known in Tunisia, in large part due to censorship and repression during the previous decades.
Not a Facebook revolution
Many media reports give the impression that the overthrow of Ben Ali was the result of cell phones, Twitter, and Internet blogs. But Ziad Mhirsi, one of the bloggers who helped publicize photos of the protests and government repression told Al Jazeera, Its not a Facebook revolution. Definitely not. People went to the streets, people died, people demonstrated.
As protests continue, Interior Minister Ahmed Friaa appealed to demonstrators to go home. We are entering a new phase, he said, Give this government time.
But having won more freedoms, working people are not in a mood to back down. Ignoring a government-decreed curfew, caravan participants are camped out in front of government offices in Tunis: They have vowed to remain until Ghannouchi, Mebazaa, and others identified with Ben Ali resign. Residents of the capital have brought them food and water. The aim of this caravan is to make the government fall, school teacher Rabia Slimane said.
Washington is also worried about getting in place a stable regime that will replace Ben Ali, a longtime close U.S. ally. After meeting with Tunisian foreign minister Kamel Morjane in Tunis, U.S. assistant secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman said, Were prepared to provide any support that would be needed or requested.
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