TUNIS, Tunisia, (AP) – Hundreds of protesters marched down the main street of Tunisia’s capital on Wednesday, demanding that allies of the ousted president stop clinging to power.
The demonstrators sang nationalist songs and held up signs with “RCD Out!” — referring to the former ruling party — as they walked down Avenue Bourguiba in central Tunis. White-and-blue police vans lined the route to prevent any clashes.
A spokesman for the embattled prime minister said ministers who remained in the new interim government were debating whether to hold their first meeting Wednesday or Thursday. Four new ministers resigned within 24 hours after being appointed to the unprecedented multiparty Cabinet, weakening its prospects.
A popular uprising ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on Friday after 23 years in power, and the caretaker government run by his longtime prime minister is now struggling to calm tensions. The fragile state of the government highlights Tunisians’ questions about who is in control of this North Africa nation on the Mediterranean Sea, popular among European tourists and seen as an ally in the West’s fight against terrorism.
An airport official said the Tunisian foreign minister, Kamal Merjan, left the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheik on Wednesday before the start of an Arab League summit, without giving any reason.
The unrest has also rattled Tunisia’s economy, which has seen impressive growth in recent years. Moody’s Investor Service downgraded Tunisia’s government bond ratings Wednesday, citing “significant uncertainties” surrounding Tunisia’s economic and political future.
Moody’s cut the rating by one notch, to “Baa3” from “Baa2,” and also downgraded its outlook to negative from stable. The new rating is one notch above “junk bond” status.
Labor unions, students and members of the Ennahdha Islamist party — which Ben Ali banned in 1992 and cracked down upon for years — have been among those protesting since his ouster.
A new unity government announced Monday was mostly made up of old guard politicians. A day later, at least four opposition ministers quit, aligning themselves with demonstrators who insist democratic change is impossible with former Ben Ali supporters still in power.
Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi and interim president Fouad Mebazaa, the former speaker of the lower house of parliament, quit the ruling RCD party on Tuesday in an attempt to distance themselves from Ben Ali. The party itself kicked out Ben Ali, its founder, national TV reported.
The protests began in December, 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 move hit a nerve among frustrated jobless youths and prompted protests around the nation. Officials say 78 protesters and civilians died in the protests that swept Ben Ali from power — many killed by police bullets.
Ben Ali was often criticized for a heavy-handed repression against his opponents, curbing civil liberties and running a police state — though he was praised for developing tourism and allying with the U.S. against terrorism. His relatives — especially his wife’s family — were seen as corrupt and dominated many businesses in the nation.
Bowing to protesters’ demands in recent days, Ghannouchi has pledged to free political prisoners, lift restrictions on the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights and create state panels to investigate bribery and abuses during the upheaval.