TUNIS (Reuters) – Tunisia’s prime minister defended his new unity government on Tuesday after critics attacked his decision to retain many ministers who served under the country’s ousted president.
Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi brought opposition leaders into the coalition announced on Monday after the president fled to Saudi Arabia following weeks of violent street protests. But key ‘old guard’ figures kept their jobs, angering many.
“We have tried to put together a mix that takes into account the different forces in the country to create the conditions to be able to start reforms,” Ghannouchi told Europe 1 radio.
The old ministers had been kept on because they were needed in the run-up to elections, expected in the next two months, and they could be counted on, he said.
Ghannouchi rejected suggestions that the “dictatorship” of ousted president Zine al Abedine Ben Ali would continue under a new guise.
“That is completely unfair. Today there is an era of liberty which is showing itself on the television, on the street,” he said.
The weeks of protests against poverty and unemployment in Tunisia which forced Ben Ali from office prompted fears across the Arab world that similarly repressive governments might also face popular unrest.
In Tunis on Tuesday, people in several parts of the city reported hearing sporadic gunfire overnight but there was significantly less gunfire than on previous nights.
On Bourguiba Avenue, the tree-lined main street in the capital, kerb-side cafes were putting out their tables for the first time since last week, and shops were re-opening.
The avenue had been the scene of a protest against the government on Monday. As usual, there was a police and military presence but there was no sign of any demonstration early on Tuesday.
A Reuters photographer in the Ariana suburb of Tunis said local people were organising neighborhood groups to clean up the damage left by several days of lawlessness.
Interior Minister Ahmed Friaa told state television on Monday that at least 78 people had been killed in the unrest, and the cost so far in damage and lost business was 3 billion dinars ($2 billion).
Ghannouchi promised to release all political prisoners and to investigate those suspected of corruption, and those behind the killing of demonstrators would face justice.
“All those who are behind this massacre, this carnage, will be accountable to the justice system.”
The wave of protests has hit stock and currency markets from Jordan to Morocco amid fears that the Tunisian unrest would spread abroad.
The prime minister said the ministers of defense, interior, finance and foreign affairs under Ben Ali would keep their jobs in the new government.
Among opposition figures, Najib Chebbi, founder of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), was named minister of regional development, Ettajdid party leader Ahmed Ibrahim higher education minister and Mustafa Ben Jaafar, head of the Union of Freedom and Labour, health minister.
Ordinary Tunisians in the capital were skeptical about the new coalition’s promises of reform.
“We do not trust this government because there are the same faces, like Ghannouchi … and particularly Friaa,” said passerby Mohamed Mishrgi.
“It’s as if Ben Ali’s system is still there. It’s for that reason that the demonstrations are continuing in Tunis. We want a new state with new people.”
A British minister also called for more reforms and greater political freedom in Tunisia.
The changes in Tunisia are “not yet the political reform that many people in that country hope for,” Foreign Office minister David Lidington told parliament, calling for “an orderly move toward free and fair elections”.
In Washington, the White House said it welcomed the reforms announced by Ghannouchi, along with the commitment to probe corruption, promote free media and free political prisoners.
“We expect the Tunisian government to … follow through on these stated reforms and hold free and fair elections in order to fulfil the aspirations of the Tunisian people,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said.