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Tunisia's government mulls Cabinet changes

Tunisia's government mulls Cabinet changes
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Wednesday, January 26, 2011 - 12:06am

TUNIS, Tunisia – Tunisia's new interim government worked Tuesday to replace ministers who quit and weighed possible deeper changes to the Cabinet as protesters continued to complain that the old guard still holds too much power.

Demonstrators are angry that members of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's regime have clung to leading posts in the interim government in place since last week. Ben Ali fled the country Jan. 14 after 23 years in power, pushed out by weeks of deadly protests driven by anger over joblessness, corruption and repression in the North African nation.

Anti-government protesters have demonstrated every day since Ben Ali's ouster. For the first time Tuesday, hundreds marched in the capital in support of the caretaker government, which is trying to stabilize the country after five weeks of unrest.

One banner read, "Long live democracy, no to anarchy!"

Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane, among the ministers under Ben Ali who kept their jobs in the transition, told The AP that he would be willing to walk away from his job if he is deemed an obstacle to having the broadest government possible.

"I'm ready myself to leave the government at any moment," he said in an interview.

Morjane and government spokesman Taieb Baccouche said the prime minister was carrying out consultations Tuesday on ways to strengthen the government. The interim premier must replace five ministers who slammed the door on the new government soon after they were named, echoing protesters' concerns.

The new lineup will be announced Wednesday, the official news agency TAP said.

Tunisia's so-called "Jasmine Revolution" has sparked scattered protests and civil disobedience in the Middle East and North Africa, and much of the world is watching to see how the birth pangs of Tunisian democracy play out.

In Egypt on Tuesday, thousands of anti-government protesters, some hurling rocks, clashed with riot police in Cairo in a Tunisia-inspired demonstration to demand the end of Hosni Mubarak's nearly 30 years in power.

Tunisia's protests started about five weeks ago, when a 26-year-old set himself on fire in desperation at unemployment and harassment under the Ben Ali regime. That desperate act sparked violent protests that eventually forced Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia.

Some 78 civilians were killed in the unrest that preceded and followed Ben Ali's departure, many shot by police, according to the government's official count. The opposition says the overall toll is much higher.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, who took that post in 1999 under Ben Ali and has kept it through the upheaval, has vowed to quit politics after upcoming elections. But he has insisted that he needs to stay on to shepherd Tunisia through a transition to democracy.

The foreign minister said that "of course we cannot not be perfect, and nobody is saying this government is the best.

"What I'm saying is there is no other choice" besides having a "mixture of the people who have experience and people who are new in the government in order to lead this country, to lead our people during this limited period," Morjane said, speaking English.

The foreign minister said he fears "a vacuum in the state, I fear chaos." Asked what he meant, Morjane said, "It could come from al-Qaida for example."

Ben Ali — while roundly criticized for cracking down on opponents, curbing civil liberties and presiding over a police state — was a staunch ally with Western powers in the fight against terrorism.

Under his watch, Tunisia was relatively untouched by the kind of Islamic extremist violence that wracked neighboring Algeria, except for a 2002 attack on a synagogue on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba that killed 21 people, mostly German tourists. Investigators linked the attack to al-Qaida.

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