TUNIS (AFP) – Tunisian authorities arrested 33 members of toppled dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s family and paraded a treasure trove of jewellery seized in raids on their homes on state television on Thursday.
As the new-look government prepared for its first meeting of the post-Ben Ali era, one-time allies of the ousted strongman tried to distance themselves from his rule, with the interim president vowing a “total break” with the past.
And eight ministers in the new national unity cabinet who had up until now remained members of Ben Ali’s disgraced Constitutional Democratic Rally resigned from the party, according to official sources.
The mass arrest of his relatives underscored how Ben Ali’s influence has melted away the six days since he dramatically fled to Saudi Arabia, following weeks of riots in the north African nation.
As it showed footage of luxury watches, jewellery and credit cards seized in a series of raids, public television said officials had opened an investigation against the former first family for plundering the nation’s resources.
The accusations include illegal property acquisitions and currency transfers while those targeted included Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi, her brothers and their children, according to an official source quoted by the broadcaster.
Accusations of corruption and revelations of the Ben Ali family’s lavish lifestyle helped fuel the anger of the protests against his 23-year rule which culminated in his toppling last Friday.
Ahead of Thursday’s inaugural meeting of the new cabinet, interim president Foued Mebazaa hailed “a revolution of dignity and liberty” and paid tribute to the “martyrs” who were shot dead in the attempt to keep a lid on the protests.
Mebazaa said the government’s top priority would be to draw up an amnesty law for the release of all political prisoners imprisoned under Ben Ali and he vowed to ensure media freedoms and an independent judiciary.
“Together we can write a new page in the history of our country,” he said in a televised address on Wednesday night.
Washington has urged Tunisia to move to a true democracy, and vowed to help.
“The people of Tunisia have spoken. The interim government must create a genuine transition to democracy. The United States will help,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley wrote on the microblogging site Twitter.
The main UGTT trade union — which played a decisive role in the anti-regime protests — has refused to recognise or take part in the new government.
“We cannot take part in a government that includes symbols of the old regime,” Abdessalem Jrad, secretary general of the union, told AFP earlier.
The government moved on Wednesday to give legal status to three parties barred under the previous administration and freed a dissident journalist, Fahem Boukadous, sentenced to four years in prison last year for his work.
The banned Islamist Ennahdha (Awakening) movement has said it will seek to acquire legal status as a political party to take part in the elections.
The authorities have shortened the curfew in place for several days, saying the security situation has improved. But a state of emergency banning public assemblies has remained in place and the army is still deployed in the capital.
Schools and universities also remain closed.
The tumultuous events in Tunisia have inspired dissidents across the Arab world and sparked protests in countries including Algeria, Jordan and Egypt.
There has been a spate of suicides across the region in apparent imitation of the self-immolation of a 26-year-old Tunisian graduate, Mohammed Bouazizi, whose lonely protest last month kicked off the movement against Ben Ali.
One of Ben Ali’s fiercest critics, Moncef Marzouki — who has said he intends to run in the presidential election — has returned to Tunisia after years of exile in Paris. He visited Bouazizi’s tomb on Wednesday.