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Government set for cabinet shakeup as army chief warns against 'power vacuum'

Video by Mark Thompson

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2011-01-24

As Tunisia's struggling interim government discussed a cabinet reshuffle on Monday involving at least six posts, the army chief warned anti-government protesters that a continuing "power vacuum" could end in a new dictatorship.

AFP - Tunisia prepared for a major cabinet shake-up on Monday as the head of the army warned thousands of anti-government protesters in the centre of Tunis that a "power vacuum" could lead to a dictatorship.

"Our revolution, your revolution, the revolution of the young, risks being lost ... There are forces that are calling for a void, a power vacuum. The void brings terror, which brings dictatorship," Rachid Ammar told the protesters.

Speaking through a megaphone and surrounded by soldiers, the popular general said the army would act as a "guarantor" for the revolution that ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and would respect the country's constitution.

He appealed to protesters to let "this government or another one" work.

But hundreds of protesters remained and prepared to spend a second night camped out in front of Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi's offices in defiance of a curfew that remains in place as the government struggles to restore order.

Taieb Baccouch, a spokesman for the government and the education minister, meanwhile told AFP that a cabinet reshuffle involving at least six ministerial posts was being discussed and could be announced later on Monday or on Tuesday.

"In total there will be a minimum of six, if not more, posts vacant and this will definitely necessitate a cabinet reshuffle, possibly between now and tomorrow," he said in an interview a week after the government was announced.

Five ministers have already announced their resignation from the government.

There were some violent scenes at the rally in the city centre earlier as security forces fired tear gas and sealed off the area with barbed wire.

Some protesters threw stones, charged police lines and smashed a police car.

"Resign scum!" the protesters chanted in front of the prime minister's offices after hundreds spent the night staking out the building in defiance of a curfew kept in place in a bid to restore order amid continuing turmoil.

Many of the protesters had made their way to the capital from the impoverished rural parts of Tunisia where the uprising began and held up pictures of victims of Ben Ali's bloody crackdown in recent weeks.

The US State Department, which has supported the uprising, meanwhile said it had dispatched its top Middle East envoy, Jeffrey Feltman, to Tunisia to press the caretaker government on democratic reforms and new elections.

Tunisia is still in the midst of upheaval and on Monday primary schools remained shut despite an order to re-open after teachers called an "unlimited" strike against the government set up after the end of Ben Ali's 23-year rule.

Teenagers in their final year of school returned to classes as expected and some universities are to start re-opening on Tuesday. Schools and universities had been shut down by Ben Ali in a failed bid to stop the protests widening.

The General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), which called the teachers strike, has refused to recognise the new government because it keeps in place important figures from the ousted regime including Ghannouchi.

Many Tunisians feel the same and have kept up daily protests, calling also for the destruction of Ben Ali's RCD party.

Others say it is time for calm.

Ghannouchi, in place since 1999, says he will resign only after the state's first democratic elections since independence from France in 1956.

He said the vote could be held within six months but has not set a date.

France has been criticised for offering support to Ben Ali and President Nicolas Sarkozy said it had "underestimated" the anger of the Tunisian people.

French state prosecutors also opened an investigation into the Paris real estate assets of the Ben Ali family after activist groups filed a civil suit estimating he had amassed five billion dollars (3.6 billion euros).

Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14 amid a wave of protests.

Tunisia's new transition government has since unveiled unprecedented democratic reforms including allowing full media freedoms, releasing political prisoners and registering political parties that were banned under Ben Ali.

The movement against Ben Ali began after a 26-year-old fruit vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, set fire to himself to protest police abuses.

The Arab world's first popular revolt in recent history has inspired copycat self-immolations in Algeria, Egypt, Mauritania and Morocco.

There have also been calls for Tunisia-style protests in Sudan and Yemen.


Date created : 2011-01-24