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Interim president in Tunisia pledges a break from the past

From Tommy Evans and Rima Maktabi, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Interim president says reform is on the agenda
  • NEW: French authorities last week stopped shipment of law enforcement gear
  • Many people marched to a police line and chanted
  • U.N. high commissioner for human rights: Unrest has claimed more than 100 lives

Tunis, Tunisia (CNN) -- Tunisia's interim president said Wednesday the country's new government plans to sever "any link with the past," a reference to widely unpopular years of rule under the former regime.

In remarks aired by Tunisian state TV and Al-Jazeera, Fouad Mebazaa said the government is intent on working with citizens to bring about security and initiate reforms.

"We will personally ensure that the government will implement all its promises to the people beginning with completely cutting any link with the past," he said.

He made the comments on a day when protesters angered by living conditions and government corruption staged a noisy but peaceful rally in Tunisia's capital, and an Arab League official said the unrest illustrates "the great social shakes that are inflicting Arab societies."

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Mebazaa made reference to the civil unrest that has engulfed the country. The grass-roots rage against government corruption and poor living conditions led to the ouster last week of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

"Regarding the security situation in the country, you must have noticed the improvements that took place. We'd like to inform and assure you that we have identified those responsible for spreading chaos in the country and terror in the hearts of the citizens, and we have arrested the gangs. The situation is stable," he said.

He also addressed the issue of press freedom, saying the "media must be free from all restrictions in order for them to practice their sensitive role" and they "are required to respect the ethics of the profession before everything."

In Tunis, crowds of people tramped down Avenue Habib Bourguiba, singing the country's national anthem and chanting against the former ruling party and the former president, who fled the country last week amid the countrywide grass-roots uprising.

The people strode to a police line and met the officers eyeball to eyeball, but there was no conflict. Witnesses said the police demeanor appeared more relaxed than in previous days, with the officers holding their ground but not acting aggressively.

When the protests were at their height, thousands took to the streets, but the throng has dwindled. Trams that moved through the protests were spray-painted with slogans denouncing the former ruling party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally, and tram riders and drivers held protest signs, too.

This is in contrast to other days in Tunis, when police lobbed tear gas and dispersed peaceful marchers with batons.

As protesters chanted, an army helicopter flew over the city, drawing a cheer from the crowd, which views the army as a calming factor in the street conflict and sees the police as aligned with Ben Ali and his party.

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In many parts of the capital, life was nearly normal. Streets were busy, and shops, cafes, and restaurants were open.

Tunisian officials are attempting to keep afloat the country's unity government, formed earlier this week with members of the opposition and the Ben Ali party.

But there have been difficulties in getting that administration going because protesters upset about living conditions are demanding that more be done to sweep the old guard out of power.

Mebazaa, and prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, resigned from the ousted leader's ruling party, state TV said Tuesday, a move seen as a gesture to placate angry street demonstrators and keep the unity government afloat.

But at least four ministers from opposition parties have pulled back from the new government, leaving some observers concerned that the coalition may collapse before it can set up new elections.

Asked whether the unity government will collapse if demonstrations continue, Minister of Social Affairs Moncer Rouissi said that everyone has the right to demonstrate, but that will not stop the government from fulfilling its duties.

Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia last week after ruling the country for 23 years, following weeks of protests over what Tunisians said were poor living conditions, high unemployment, government corruption and repression.

The unrest over the past several weeks was triggered in December when Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed college graduate, set himself ablaze after police confiscated the fruit cart that was his source of income. He died early this month.

More than 100 deaths have occurred so far during the unrest in Tunisia, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said Wednesday, and she announced that she plans to send an assessment team to Tunisia in the coming days.

In a keynote statement delivered at a news briefing in Geneva, Pillay noted that "human rights abuses were at the heart of Tunisia's problems, and therefore human rights must be right at the forefront of the solutions to those problems."

Pillay said that she expects her team, in addition to gathering information about the current and past human rights situation, to come back with a set of concrete proposals for action on issues related to past abuses as well as future reforms.

Saying that "human rights lie right at the heart" of the developments that led to Ben Ali's departure, Pillay said her agency and others hope for "the beginning of a new Tunisia."

"We have all been watching anxiously as the historic events triggered by the courageous people of Tunisia have been unfolding, with astonishing speed, over the past few weeks. It is essential that we, the international community, give our full support to their call for freedom and for the full respect of human rights for everyone in Tunisia," Pillay said.

She said it's important that "the seeds of change are sown wisely and sown now, before former entrenched interests start to reassert themselves, or new threats emerge."

Pillay said she met with a group of non-governmental organizations Monday and spoke by phone with the new deputy minister of foreign affairs Wednesday. Also, she said she welcomed the interim government's announcement that it will release of political detainees, permit political parties to operate freely and establish freedom of the press.

"I also welcome the government's announcement that it will address the underlying causes of the unrest by enacting policies to ameliorate economic hardship," she said.

Protesters in Tunisia have denounced the wealth and corruption of Ben Ali and his family. The Swiss Foreign Ministry website said authorities there have decided to freeze any of the assets belong to Ben Ali or his "entourage."

Authorities in Switzerland are doing this to "avoid any possible risk of embezzling Tunisian state assets," it said. The Swiss federal council has also forbidden "the sale or disposal of any properties belonging to this person."

Asked by a Saudi TV station about hosting Ben Ali, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal defended the nation's action.

He said it's unfair to infer that the move was made to interfere in Tunisia's internal affairs and stressed that Saudi Arabia stands by the Tunisian people "in achieving their objectives."

"Sheltering anyone is an Arabic tradition, and we are all Arabs, so whoever asks for refuge should be received," he said.

Meanwhile, French customs agents stopped a private shipment of law enforcement equipment bound for Tunisia, including tear gas grenades and bullet-proof vests, French government spokesman Francois Baroin told reporters in Paris on Wednesday.

The equipment, originally requested by Ben Ali, was due to leave the Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris on Friday, the day Ben Ali fled Tunisia.

International powers are expecting the interim government to hold free and fair elections, and the flight of Ben Ali has emboldened Tunisian opposition figures.

Monsef al Marzouki, the leader of Tunisia's National Congress Party -- a leftist and secularist movement that was banned by Ben Ali's ruling party -- has returned to Tunisia from exile in Paris.

On Tuesday, Marzouki told CNN he'll run for president "if there are fair and transparent elections" and will call for changes to the current constitution.

He said he objects to the Ben Ali party keeping the main ministries, referring to Defense, Finance, Foreign ministries as well as the post of prime minister, even though Ghannouchi submitted his resignation from the ruling party.

"They are trying to hijack the revolution that the people of Tunisia have achieved," Marzouki said. "The revolution requires a total break with the past."

Marzouki called for "more peaceful demonstrations" and urged the government to remove all members of Ben Ali's party.

"The RCD party is a dictator party, and this party needs to be dissolved," he said, using the acronym for the Constitutional Democratic Rally. "We even consider the current Parliament and government institutions (consisting of RCD members) as nonexistent, politically."

Marzouki also said he visited the tomb of Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid and attended a peaceful demonstration there.

The ouster of Tunisia's longtime ruler has cast a shadow over the surrounding region, Amre Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, said on Wednesday.

"It is on everybody's mind that the Arab spirit is broken. The Arab spirit is down by poverty, unemployment and the general decline in the real indicators of development," Moussa said.

Speaking at the Arab League economic summit, Moussa said the "revolution happening in Tunisia is not far from the subject matter of this summit, namely the socioeconomic development and the extent of its balance, expansion, comprehensiveness and fair distribution."

Neighboring Algeria was also wracked by rioting last week, triggered by the spiraling costs of basic foods after its government slashed price supports for staples like milk, oil and sugar. State-run media reported at least three people had died in the clashes.

Libya's longtime strongman, Moammar Gadhafi, mourned Ben Ali's ouster and warned in a nationally televised speech that Tunisia was facing "unjustified chaos." And in Egypt, several people have set themselves afire in public this week -- the same type of protest that triggered Tunisia's demonstrations in December.

Juan Cole, a Middle East historian at the University of Michigan and blogger, said the Tunisian uprising was the most successful revolt in the region since 1979. That's when the shah's regime was toppled in Iran.

"There have been lots of civil wars. There's been lots of societies in turmoil. But this kind of phenomenon where you had crowds peacefully coming into the streets to demand a change in their own contract with their government -- in the Arab world proper, this is the first time it's happened and it's the first time since 1979 in the Middle East," Cole told CNN on Wednesday.

Cole said other governments in the region -- particularly Jordan -- may face similar problems, but Tunisia has been "a little bit unique."

Tunisia, he said, is the "most secular country in the Arab world." Its traditions have favored women's rights and its Islamist influence is negligible.

It lacked the oil resources of other Arab states, so Ben Ali was unable to buy off a restive population. Tunisia lacked the ethnic divisions seen in other Middle Eastern countries, which make it harder for opposition movements to unite.

Ben Ali appeared to lack the support of the military, as evidenced by his last-ditch firing of his army chief of staff. In Jordan, he said, it would be "impossible" to imagine the Bedouin-dominated officer corps siding with the country's ethnic Palestinians against the Hashemite royal family.

CNN's Matt Smith contributed to this report

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