TUNIS (AFP) – Pressure has been rising on Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi to quit as the main trade union targeted his transitional government and the United States called for democratic reforms to stem turmoil.
Thousands rallied in Tunis and other cities Saturday, while hundreds of protesters backed by the UGTT union launched a march on the capital from the impoverished region where an uprising began last month, ending strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s 23-year rule.
Participants at the march called their protest a “caravan of liberation”.
“The aim of this caravan is to make the government fall,” said Rabia Slimane, 40, a teacher from Menzel Bouzaiane, where the first victim of the uprising was killed by security forces last month.
The peaceful anti-government demonstrators in Tunis were joined by hundreds of police officers, some of whom briefly blocked a car carrying interim president Foued Mebazaa, the speaker of parliament.
Public assemblies of more than three people are officially banned under a state of emergency that remains in place, along with a night-time curfew.
The General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT under its French acronym), which played a vital role in the movement against Ben Ali, has refused to recognise the new government because of its inclusion of figures from the old regime.
Ghannouchi has been prime minister in Tunisia since 1999.
Mebazaa has promised a “total break” with the old regime and the government has announced that political prisoners will be released and all political parties legalised.
Many Tunisians are already enjoying their new-found freedoms.
“Free at last!” read a sign spray-painted on the central Avenue Bourguiba.
Meanwhile the banned Islamist movement Ennahdha has said it intends to register as an official political party and take part in elections.
Its exiled leader Rached Ghannouchi was quoted by German weekly Der Spiegel on Saturday saying he would return to his homeland “very soon”.
The government on Saturday also lifted restrictions on the import of foreign literature and films, which were tightly controlled by the previous regime.
But many Tunisians are saying their revolution has not yet achieved its goals and are calling for the break-up of the powerful former ruling party.
Ghannouchi, who has kept his post despite the revolt, earlier promised to resign from political life after the north African country holds its first free and fair polls since independence from France in 1956.
He gave no indication of when the elections could be held.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called on the embattled Tunisian prime minister to carry out democratic reforms to stem the country’s political turmoil, her spokesman said Saturday.
Clinton called Mohammed Ghannouchi “to encourage ongoing reforms, and pledged support for transition to open democracy,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said in a message on the micro-blogging website Twitter.
Schools and universities, which were shut on January 10 in the final days of Ben Ali, will be reopened this week, officials said. The first university classes will be preceded by a minute’s silence for victims of the regime.
Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia last Friday in the Arab world’s first popular uprising in recent history and his family has scattered around the world.
A Canadian government official told AFP on Saturday that one of Ben Ali’s brothers-in-law had arrived in Canada on Friday, while Tunisian authorities said they have arrested 33 members of the family and frozen their assets.
Officials say 78 people were killed during weeks of protest and they have been hailed by Tunisia’s imams as “martyrs of the revolution”.
The uprising in Tunisia has inspired dissidents across the Arab world, with several cases of self-immolations reported in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Mauritania following the one that set off the Tunisian protests.