(photo credit: AP)
TUNIS, Tunisia — Tunisia's interim leaders are planning to announce a new government Monday that includes opposition leaders for the first time — a move they hope will stabilize their violence-wracked nation.
Police were seen using tear gas to break up a demonstration on the main avenue in central Tunis on Monday, and helicopters were circling overhead. There were also unconfirmed reports of the arrests or killings of gunmen behind shooting rampages since autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on Friday.
Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, a longtime ally of Ben Ali, said a new national unity government was likely to be announced Monday that would include former regime opponents long locked out of access to power. That would mark an unprecedented transition of power in the Arab world.
Many Tunisians were hopeful about the first new government in 23 years but wary of what the future may hold. Some countries — like Tunisia's former colonial overseer, France — have called for restraint as unrest in the North African country plays out.
A semblance of normal daily life returned in some areas of the capital on Monday, with once-shuttered shops, gas stations, pharmacies and supermarkets reopening and many people returning to their jobs.
Hundreds of stranded tourists were still being evacuated from the country. Foreign airlines were gradually resuming service that was halted when Tunisian airspace closed amid the upheaval.
The constitution requires elections in 60 days after the departure of a leader, but one opposition leader told The Associated Press that Tunisian authorities could announce presidential elections in the next six months instead.
The opposition PDP party has pushed for the later timetable because its leaders feel Tunisians need time to familiarize themselves with parties so elections can be credible after decades of one-party rule, the official said.
Nejib Chebbi, a PDP founder and its longtime leader, and two other leaders of opposition parties are expected to gain posts in the new government along with some members of Ben Ali's former regime, the party official, speaking said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Over the weekend, police arrested dozens of people, including the top presidential security chief, as tensions appeared to mount between Tunisians buoyant over Ben Ali's ouster and loyalists in danger of losing major perks.
Looting escalated as ordinary Tunisians saw worsening shortages of essentials such as milk, bread and fish.
A gunbattle broke out around the presidential palace late Sunday afternoon in Carthage on the Mediterranean shore, north of Tunis. The army and members of the newly appointed presidential guard fought off attacks from militias loyal to Ben Ali, said a member of the new presidential guard. Another two-hour gunbattle behind the Interior Ministry in central Tunis raged at the same time.
The prime minister said police and the army have carried out arrests
among armed groups, without saying how many, and insisted "the coming
days will show who is behind them."
"We won't be tolerant towards these people," Ghannouchi said.
Ex-presidential security chief Ali Seriati and his deputy were charged
with a plot against state security, aggressive acts and for "provoking
disorder, murder and pillaging," the TAP state news agency reported.
The downfall of the 74-year-old Ben Ali, who had taken power in a
bloodless coup in 1987, served as a warning to other autocratic leaders
in the Arab world. His Mediterranean nation, an ally in the US fight
against terrorism and a popular tourist destination known for its wide
beaches, deserts and ancient ruins, had seemed more stable than many in
the region before the uprising that began last month.