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Old guard keeps key posts in Tunisian unity government

Tunisian PM Mohamed Ghannouchi (pictured) announced a new national unity government Monday, which included opposition members. But the defence, interior and foreign ministers under former strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali retained their posts.


Tunisia’s Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi announced a new unity government, which includes established political figures as well as opposition members, on Monday in a bid to bring back political stability following the ouster of Tunisian strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Key figures in Tunisian politics
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At a press conference in the Tunisian capital of Tunis, Ghannouchi announced that the foreign, interior and defence ministers under Ben Ali would retain their jobs.

But in an attempt to involve the country’s long sidelined opposition parties, the leaders of Tunisia’s three leading opposition parties have become part of the new government.

Najib Chebbi, a prominent opposition figure and founder of the PDP (Progressive Democratic Party), was appointed minister of regional development.

Ahmed Ibrahim, a trade unionist and leader of the Ettajdid party, was named minister of higher education, while Mustafa Ben Jaafar, head of the FTDL (Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties), was appointed minister of health.

The former speaker of parliament, Foued Mebazaa, will continue in the role of interim president.

While the country’s constitution states that presidential and parliamentary elections should be held within two months, Chebbi told FRANCE 24 that the new coalition is set to remain in place for the next six months.

“A period of six months was agreed upon so that constitutional and legislative reforms could be carried out, to pave the way for a neutral election, with a neutral electoral committee and international observers,” said Chebbi, in an interview with FRANCE 24 shortly before the new government was announced.

Official death toll mounts to 78

The formation of a new government was seen as a critical step toward establishing order and filling a dangerous power vacuum in the North African nation following Ben Ali’s ouster last week.

Speaking to reporters shortly after he was reinstated as interior minister, Ahmed Friaa said at least 78 people had been killed since the start of the unrest. The figure was significantly higher than the last official death toll of 21 issued before Ben Ali fled for Saudi Arabia last week.

Friaa also estimated that the economic cost so far in damaged property and lost business was 3 billion dinars ($2 billion).

In an attempt to introduce what he called “total freedom” for the press, Ghannouchi announced that he was scrapping the ministry for information, an ubiquitous feature in several Arab nations and the bane of many domestic and international reporters.

Ghannouchi also declared that all political parties would be allowed to operate and that political prisoners would be freed. He also promised that “anyone with great wealth or suspected of corruption” would face an investigation.

A veteran politician who has served as prime minister since 1999, Ghannouchi is widely regarded as a close associate of Ben Ali and the architect of the former Tunisian president’s economic policies.

‘Ben Ali regime without Ben Ali’

The retention of the key defense, interior and foreign affairs portfolios has been slammed by some opposition figures.

“We do not recognise the national unity government,” said Hamma Hammami, head of the banned Communist Workers Party, in an interview with FRANCE 24 shortly before the new government was announced. “It will be a continuation of the Ben Ali regime without Ben Ali, just with more democratic trimmings".

“This is not a coup changeover,” explained FRANCE 24 International Affairs Editor, Armen Georgian. “The key interior, foreign and defence ministers have been retained. Most of all, this is being overseen by a prime minister who was Ben Ali’s man, the architect of Tunisia’s economic policies which have now been rejected by the Tunisian people.”

According to Georgian, Chebbi’s appointment as minister of regional development is an attempt to address Tunisia’s disparities of income, which have split the country between the impoverished south and the coastal northern regions popular with tourists. “It’s hugely important in Tunisia because of the problem of internal immigration, which is people fleeing the lack of opportunities and going to the coastal areas for jobs,” said Georgian. “But it’s important to reiterate that this is still a transitional government that will have to pave the way for national elections.”


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