Tunisian protesters vow to oust interim government

Hundreds of defiant Tunisians camped in front of Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi’s office to force the government to quit, as schoolteachers were set to launch an open-ended strike from Monday.

Protesters said the revolt against strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had not gone far enough and should be followed up by the removal of all old-regime figures from the leadership and the abolition of Ben Ali’s powerful RCD party.

The protestors defied a night curfew and a state of emergency that bans any public assemblies but security forces did not intervene.

They set up two tents and laid out sleeping bags on the square in front of Ghannouchi’s office, where thousands had gathered earlier.

Many had come from poorer rural regions of the North African state, where the uprising against Ben Ali’s rule began with social protests last month.

“We won’t leave the square until the government resigns,” said Mizar, a student from Sidi Bouzid — the town in central Tunisia where a fruit vendor’s self-immolation protest last month unleashed the first demonstrations.

Some of the protesters held up pictures of the dozens of people killed during Ben Ali’s crackdown, who are now officially “martyrs of the revolution.”

“We have come to bring down the rest of the dictatorship,” said Mohammed Layani, an elderly man draped in a Tunisian flag.

The protest was supported by the General Union of Tunisian Workers, best known under its French acronym UGTT, which played a key role in anti-Ben Ali protests and has refused to recognise the fledgling government.

The state news agency TAP meanwhile reported that the director of the country’s main private television channel had been arrested for plotting to bring back Ben Ali and the channel was briefly taken off air.

The channel later re-appeared with the inscription: “Voice of the People.”

Officials said they had also detained three key figures close to Ben Ali, who quit on January 14 after 23 years in power and fled to Saudi Arabia.

Senate leader Abdallah Kallal and top Ben Ali advisers Abdel Aziz Ben Dhia and Abdel Wahab Abdallah were being held under house arrest, TAP news agency reported.

The government has sought to put an end to days of turmoil in the country and schools and universities, which were shut on January 10 during the protest movement against Ben Ali, were expected to begin re-opening this week.

A planned re-opening of schools on Monday was however in question as the UGTT union has called for teachers to strike against the government.

Schoolteachers have said they will go on an indefinite protest, prompting Higher Education Minister Ahmed Ibrahim, on opponent to Ben Ali’s rule, urging them to call off this “irresponsible strike.”

The new transitional government, put in place after Ben Ali’s shock resignation has unveiled unprecedented freedoms but some ministers from the previous government still hold key posts.

Ghannouchi earlier appeared to respond to public pressure announcing that he would quit politics altogether but only after organising the country’s first democratic elections since independence from France in 1956.

He has held the post of prime minister since 1999 and interim president Foued Mebazaa is also the speaker of parliament from Ben Ali’s time.

The government has not given an official date for the elections.

Many Tunisians say they are delighted at their new-found democratic freedoms after the first popular revolt in the Arab world’s recent history, which has inspired dissidents to protest in many other parts of the region.

Among the changes instituted by the government have been a removal of restrictions on the import of foreign literature and films, the release of political prisoners and the lifting of media controls. – AFP

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