Tunisian government in crisis – after just one day

Ministers resign amid calls for members of the old regime to quit the cabinet as protesters continue to take to the streets

Any hope of political stability in Tunisia all but disappeared yesterday with the new government of "national unity" on the brink of collapse just a day after being formed, amid continuing clashes between police and protesters demanding that all vestiges of the oppressive former regime be swept away.

A group of opposition politicians – brought into a hastily cobbled-together government on Monday to try to placate the angry demonstrators – walked out in an atmosphere of growing fractiousness and uncertainty within the leadership. There were reports that Mohamed Ghannouchi, the Prime Minister, had to be persuaded not to resign.

The walkouts failed to prevent the steady unravelling of the coalition following vociferous demands from the rank and file of the opposition that their leaders must not serve in the same government as those who had previously worked under former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who fled on Friday after weeks of street protests against his corrupt rule.

The first three resignations were junior ministers, but they were followed out the door by the Health Minister, Mustafa Ben Jaafar. Another senior opposition leader, Ahmed Ibrahim, the Higher Education Minister, also threatened to quit unless cabinet members from the old regime resigned from the ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), and returned any property they had gained while in office. The demands yesterday forced Mr Ghannouchi – Prime Minister since 1999 under Mr Ben Ali and seen to symbolise the former regime – into the latest of a series of climbdowns, when he and the president both resigned from their party.

However, the promises Mr Ghannouchi made of introducing the most-wide ranging reforms in the country's history and sweeping away the repressive laws of the Ben Ali times did little to placate the anger in the streets as demonstrators waved sticks of bread to complain about a food shortage.

Skirmishes took place around the city centre with police using tear gas and batons to disperse marchers and clashes continuing in sidestreets.

The range of the protests is spreading with professional groups now taking organised action, despite concessions by the leadership on Monday to free political prisoners and lift restrictions on a leading human rights group.

Among those marching yesterday were doctors and nurses, while journalists at a group running two of the biggest papers, La Presse and Essahafa, took over their offices.

As police fired tear gas at a rally in Tunis, one protester, Ben Tahar Saumi, a professor of medicine, said: "The police do not understand. The days they can terrorise us by force is over. But this society is traumatised after so many years of brutality and control.

"The shock to the system, the protests, must continue until we become a normal society again."

With no immediate end to the strife there were suggestions that the army might step into the political vacuum. Troops kept a low-key presence in the centre of Tunis but there were reports of units moving to reinforce positions on roads heading out of the city.

The head of the army, General Rachid Ammar, had given no public indication that he wanted to play a role in running the country, and has refused to comment on the growing popularity of a Facebook page entitled "General Rachid Ammar President".

But the General has been a crucial player in recent events and is said to have been one of those who persuaded the 74-year-old former president, Mr Ben Ali, to go into exile. However, the opposition said any intervention by the armed forces risked risked a recurrence of the two-decade reign of Mr Ben Ali backed by the military.

Ahmed Bouazzi, a leading member of the opposition Progressive Democratic Party, said: "We have three possibilities. The first is the complete chaos of Somalia; the second is a military coup after a saviour comes to rescue us from the chaos and lasts for 23 years.

"The third possibility is working with the people who are in charge of the state right now to prepare fair elections."

Bimsi Adel, a journalist with the Essahafa newspaper, said: "The rumours about the military are growing. People are saying it could be very soon. And if that happens, then there is just one man: General Ammar."

One politician who insisted yesterday that his time has come was Moncef Marzouki who returned from exile in France to a rapturous welcome by around 200 supporters at Tunis airport. Mr Marzouki said he was going to Sidi Bouzid, to visit the grave of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young unemployed man whose self-immolation in protest at official abuse started the weeks of demonstrations which forced Ben Ali's flight to Saudi Arabia on Friday.

Mr Marzouki declared that he intended to run in the presidential elections and said he had a good chance of winning. "Today is a great day because I am in a free country. The revolution must continue".

But, in his long years away from Tunisia, Mr Marzouki's support has coalesced around a relatively small group from an intellectual and middle-class background.

In the meantime, a revolution has taken place in Tunisia and, judging by what is going on, the power for the time being – inspired by Mohamed Bouazizi – belongs to those out on the streets.

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