Tunisia plans unity government

Updated: 2011-01-17 07:21

By Tarek Amara and Christian Lowe (China Daily)

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China calls for stability amid power vacuum after president forced to flee

Tunisia plans unity government

A torn banner of former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali elicits laughter from two women on Sunday in the Tunisian capital, Tunis. [Photo/Agencies]

TUNIS - Tunisian politicians were holding talks on Sunday to try to form a unity government to help maintain a fragile calm two days after President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted by violent protests.

Tanks were stationed around the capital Tunis and soldiers were guarding public buildings, but after a day of drive-by shootings and jailbreaks in which dozens of inmates were killed, residents said they were starting to feel more secure.

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China on Saturday expressed hopes that stability in Tunisia could be restored as early as possible.

"Tunisia is China's friend. China is concerned with what is happening in Tunisia," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.

As well as soldiers patrolling the streets of Tunis, residents have been manning their own barricades to protect their property from looters and other attackers taking advantage of the chaos after the president fled though there are signs of a return to normality.

"Last night we surrounded our neighborhood with roadblocks with teams checking cars. Now we are in the process of lifting the roadblocks and getting life back to normal," said a man, Imed, in the city's Intilaka suburb.

The streets were quiet on Sunday, but some people were moving about, shopping for food. For the first time in several days, a handful of commercial vehicles - vans and pick-up trucks - could be seen moving about with deliveries.

The only occasional sounds of gunfire overnight were a marked change from the heavy shooting the previous night.

The speaker of parliament Fouad Mebazza, sworn in as interim president, has asked Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi to form a government of national unity and constitutional authorities said a presidential election should be held within 60 days.

Ghannouchi was due to hold more talks on Sunday to try to fill the vacuum left when Ben Ali, president for more than 23 years, fled to Saudi Arabia following a month of protests over poverty and repression that claimed scores of lives.

Analysts say there may be more protests if the opposition is not sufficiently represented, and the negotiations may run into trouble when they get down to the detail of which parties get which cabinet post and how many of the old guard are included.

Opposition parties want assurances that presidential elections will be free, that they will have enough time to campaign, that the country will move toward greater democracy and that the power of the ruling party will be loosened.

The ousting of Tunisia's president after widespread protests could embolden Arab opposition movements and citizens to challenge entrenched governments across the Middle East.

"It was always said that the Arab world was boiling but the continued state of stagnation made some doubt infiltrate minds. I think this doubt has now gone," Hany al-Masri, a Palestinian commentator based in Ramallah, said.

Dozens of Hamas supporters rallied in Gaza holding large posters of Ben Ali bearing the words: "Oh, Arab leaders, learn the lesson." Tunisians living in Paris and Rome have also held protests celebrating the toppling of Ben Ali.

Gunmen fired at random from cars in Tunis on Saturday, a tactic that has terrorized people. It was not clear who the assailants were but a senior military source said that people still loyal to Ben Ali were behind the shootings.

A police official said more than 50 people have been arrested since Saturday on suspicion of using ambulances, rental cars and vehicles of the civil protection services for random shootings.

Western and Arab powers have called for calm and unity.

In Washington, White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said Ben Ali's departure could give the Tunisian people a say in how they are governed and if elections are free and fair it would deal a blow to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb militant group in north Africa.

Hundreds of European tourists stranded by the unrest were flown home on emergency flights. Tunisian air space, closed on Friday, was reopened on Saturday.

Xinhua and AP contributed to this story.



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