Tunisian premier vows to step down after elections

22nd January 2011, Comments 0 comments

Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi promised Tunisia's first democratic elections since independence from France in 1956 and said he would quit politics after the vote, in comments broadcast Friday.

"After the transition, I will retire from political life," Ghannouchi said in an interview with Tunisian television, which was recorded on Thursday.

He also promised to organise "transparent and democratic elections -- the first since independence."

Ghannouchi has already promised parliamentary and presidential elections within six months, but no dates have been set and the country's constitution says the vote should be held in less than two months.

"All undemocratic laws will be scrapped" during the transition to democracy, he added, mentioning electoral, anti-terrorism and media laws.

The prime minister, who occupied the same post in the previous government before the downfall of veteran ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was speaking as protesters called for all old regime figures to be removed from government.

"Like all Tunisians, I was afraid" under Ben Ali, he said in the interview.

Ben Ali resigned and fled in disgrace to Saudi Arabia exactly a week ago, after 23 years in power.

Earlier, protesters called for Ghannouchi -- an old regime figure -- to resign.

"You stole the wealth of the country but you're not going to steal the revolution! Government resign! We will stay loyal to the blood of the martyrs!" protesters chanted as they marched down the city centre's Avenue Bourguiba.

Officials at the prime minister's office threw portraits of Ben Ali out of their windows in the city centre.

Some waved Tunisian flags, others the flag of the main UGTT trade union, which played a key role in the protests that forced Ben Ali from power.

UGTT activists called for a new government of "national salvation," as imams prayed for the "martyrs of the revolution."

Abid Briki, deputy head of the powerful UGTT, told AFP: "The executive committee of the UGTT met today and called for the dissolution of the government and the formation of a new government for national salvation."

The union has refused to recognise the new government announced on Monday, in which key figures from the Ben Ali regime hold powerful posts, withdrawing its three appointees.

Flags flew at half-mast and state television broadcast prayers from the Koran for the 78 people who officials say were killed when security forces cracked down on the wave of social protests that began last month.

The government has declared three days of mourning starting on Friday.

It has also announced major democratic reforms such as the release of all political prisoners, complete media freedom and the registration of previous banned political movements -- including the Islamist Ennahdha.

But one protestor held up a sign reading "Our President" next to a photograph of Mohammed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old fruit vendor who inspired the uprising against Ben Ali by setting himself on fire last month.

In the mosques, Friday prayers in the North African state omitted any of the traditional mentions of Ben Ali and there was none of the usual heavy police presence near the religious centres -- a feature of the former leader's regime.

And at the Al Kitab bookshop in the city centre, a small crowd gathered as the shop put previously banned books in its window display, including a damning publication about Ben Ali's wife entitled: "The Queen of Carthage."

A curfew instituted under Ben Ali has been eased but is still in force.

Dissident journalist Taoufik Ben Brik, who lives in Paris, said he would run in the planned presidential election.

Moncef Marzouki, another dissident who returned to Tunisia this week after years of exile in Paris, has also said he wants to run.

Hundreds of people have rallied in Tunis over the past week against the new government. But the protests have been smaller than the ones before Ben Ali was overthrown and have mostly passed off peacefully.

Social protests have continued in impoverished parts of central Tunisia where the revolt began.

Public anger has been directed at the main symbols of the authoritarian regime and particularly the former president's family.

Officials said Thursday that 33 members of Ben Ali's family had been arrested.

© 2011 AFP

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