TUNIS (AFP) – Riot police and hundreds of protesters clashed in the Tunisian capital Friday, as a new cabinet was sworn into office in a bid to end the unrest that has followed president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s ouster.
Security forces fired warning shots and tear gas, as some groups threw stones in the main government quarter where protesters have remained camped out in front of Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi’s offices for five days.
Protesters had demanded a clean break with the old regime, calling for Ghannouchi to step down. The premier has been in charge since 1999 and has stayed on despite the end of Ben Ali’s 23-year iron-fisted rule on January 14.
Ben Ali fled in disgrace to Saudi Arabia amid a wave of social protests.
“The whole government has to go, especially Ghannouchi,” said Khaled Salhi, a 22-year-old student, who called the government reshuffle announced late on Thursday just “playing for time” by figures associated with the old regime.
The ripples of Tunisia’s revolution have been felt across the Arab world and have helped inspire protests against Egypt’s veteran ruler Hosni Mubarak that have raged this week in cities across Egypt and killed eight people.
The US-monitoring group SITE said Al-Qaeda hailed Tunisia’s revolt in a message saying: “Your revolution was no ordinary uprising, rather it was a devastating earthquake that struck the throne of the tyrant Ben Ali.”
Hundreds of protesters had arrived in Tunis on Sunday from impoverished regions in central Tunisia where the anti-Ben Ali movement began last month.
Security forces moved in on Friday to shut down the protest camp and bulldozers were brought in to remove tents and mattresses from the area.
Running street battles continued into the evening in the city centre.
“I saw at least five people injured. Many were bleeding. Two were injured by stones that were being thrown back at the protesters. A third was hit by a tear gas canister to the head,” Majdi Amami, an ambulance worker, told AFP.
Tunis had earlier returned to its normal bustle for the first time since Ben Ali’s downfall, but cafes quickly cleared and shops were shut down.
The government has struggled to restore order in recent days, keeping in place a curfew and a state of emergency and deploying the army in city centres.
At the same time it has unveiled major democratic freedoms, lifting media controls, releasing political prisoners and legalising opposition parties.
The cabinet has also issued international arrest warrants for Ben Ali and six members of his family and Interpol has issued a global alert.
Canada on Friday said it had agreed to arrest Ben Ali’s billionaire brother-in-law, Belhassen Trabelsi — one of the most hated figures in Tunisia.
The government also responded to public pressure by appointing a new cabinet line-up that culled key figures associated with Ben Ali’s ousted regime including the defence, finance, foreign and interior ministers.
Ghannouchi has promised to hold democratic elections within six months.
The reshuffle was received positively by the influential UGTT trade union — which played a vital role in the anti-Ben Ali movement and had led opposition to the interim government, with the union saying it approved of Ghannouchi.
EU officials said the new foreign minister, Ahmed Abderraouf Ounais, a Paris-educated career diplomat, was set to visit Brussels on Tuesday.
The EU said it would send experts next week to help prepare elections.
France, which has come under fire for backing Ben Ali and failing to support protests against him early on, said it wished the new government “success”.
Tunisian newspapers were generally positive about the government changes, with a headline in Le Quotidien daily reading: “Deliverance, At Last.”
“I think the vast majority of Tunisians are happy now and just want things to return to normal,” a taxi driver in Tunis said.