TUNIS, Tunisia — At least four opposition ministers quit Tunisia's day-old unity government Tuesday, aligning themselves with demonstrators who insist democratic change is impossible while so many supporters of the freshly ousted president are hoarding posts of power.
Police in riot gear forcefully put down a demonstration of the sort that toppled the North African country's longtime autocratic leader last week, pummeling a demonstrator with batons and boot kicks – and highlighting a question on many minds: Is the new regime really much different?
As Tunisia struggles to move past the rioting, looting and score-settling that has marked the political transition, there was a growing sense Tuesday that it will be difficult for the interim government to hold together and pave the way toward elections expected within six to seven months.
After the initial exhilaration of last week, when a populist uprising ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power and sent him fleeing to Saudi Arabia – sounding a warning bell for other political strongmen in the region – many are fretting about what it ultimately meant.
"I am afraid that our revolution will be stolen from me and my people. The people are asking for freedoms and this new government is not. They are the ones who oppressed the people for 23 years," said Ines Mawdud, a 22-year-old student who was among protesters at the demonstration.
Tunisia's outlawed Ennahdha Islamist party said its members also marched Tuesday – something that was unthinkable during the rule of Ben Ali, who banned the group in 1992 and waged an ongoing crackdown against it. Authorities had accused the group of forming a military wing to kill Ben Ali and establish a Muslim fundamentalist state. Group leaders said their confessions were extracted through torture.
Hamadi Jebali, a spokesman for the party, told AP it wants "a chance to let the people of Tunisia choose their leaders and to have a chance to accept or reject us via the polls."
Ben Ali was often criticized for a heavy-handed crackdown on Islamists and opponents, for curbing civil liberties and for running a police state – though he was praised for turning his country into a successful tourist haven and was an ally in the U.S. fight against terrorism.
In an attempt to distance themselves from Ben Ali, the country's interim president and prime minister quit the ruling RCD party on Tuesday. The RCD party also kicked out Ben Ali, its founder, national television reported. It was not immediately clear how protesters would greet those moves.
Also Tuesday, political leader Moncef Marzouki returned from more than 20 years of exile in France to a joyful reception at Tunis' airport from supporters who carried him on their shoulders.
Marzouki, a physician and human rights activist who leads the once-banned CPR party and wants to run for president, urged fellow Tunisians to hold firm in their efforts to bring down Ben Ali's party.
"Don't let anyone steal this blessed revolution from you," Marzouki said, adding: "Don't waste the blood of our martyrs." That was a reference to the 78 protesters and civilians who died in the protests that swept Ben Ali from power. Many were killed by police bullets.
In another blow to the Mediterranean country, whose economy is heavily dependent on tourism, several European tour operators said they have canceled trips to Tunisia through mid-February due to safety concerns.
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that about 70 U.S. citizens, including officials and private citizens, were flown out of Tunis today to Rabat, Morocco.
The United States is hoping Tunisia will take a path that includes "open and fair elections" and "investigating the abuses of the past," he said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also urged "broad-based consultations ... to establish an inclusive interim government leading to the holding of timely and credible elections," U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
The new unity government announced Monday was mostly made up of old guard politicians. The four ministers who quit Tuesday had been invited in though they were long critical of the ruling party.
Junior Minister for Transportation and Equipment Anouar Ben Gueddour told The Associated Press that he had resigned along with Houssine Dimassi, the labor minister, and minister without portfolio Abdeljelil Bedoui.
The three ministers are all members of a top labor union, the UGTT. It is not a party but a movement that acts like a lobby and has a big nationwide base to mobilize people around the country.
The group's supporters staged the protest in central Tunis on Tuesday, calling for a general strike, constitutional changes and the release of all imprisoned union leaders.
Health Minister Mustapha Ben Jaafar of the FDLT opposition party also resigned, party member Hedi Raddaoui told the AP.
Meanwhile, police fired tear gas at protesters angry that the old guard retained so much power.
On a back street off Avenue Bourguiba, a key thoroughfare where the clashes took place, about 50 UGTT members waved union flags and cheered. One sign read "RCD out" in English.
Union leaders said protesters calling for the RCD to be disbanded held peaceful demonstrations in Sidi Bouzid, the city where virulent criticism of Ben Ali's government first erupted last month. Tunisian television said there were protests in at least seven cities.
Mohamed Ghannouchi, who has been prime minister since 1999, said that ministers from Ben Ali's party were included in the new government "because we need them in this phase."
Tunisia has entered "an era of liberty," Ghannouchi said in an interview with France's Europe-1 radio posted on its website. "Give us a chance so that we can put in place this ambitious program of reform."
He insisted the ministers chosen "have clean hands, in addition to great competence," suggesting that experienced officials are needed along with opposition leaders in a caretaker government to guide the country before free elections are held.
Ghannouchi pledged Monday to free political prisoners and lift restrictions on a leading human rights group, the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights. He said the government would create three state commissions to study political reform, investigate corruption and bribery, and examine abuses during the recent upheaval.
The protests that forced out Ben Ali on Friday began after an educated but unemployed 26-year-old man set himself on fire last month when police confiscated the fruit and vegetables he was selling without a permit. The desperate act hit a nerve, sparking copycat suicides and focused anger against the regime into a widespread revolt.
Public protests spread over years of state repression, corruption, and a shortage of jobs for many educated young adults.
Reports of self-immolations surfaced in nearby countries, in apparent imitation of the Tunisian events. In the Egyptian port city of Alexandria, a 25-year-old unemployed man died in a hospital on Tuesday after setting himself on fire. Three other Egyptians have set themselves on fire and survived. In Algeria, there have been seven self-immolations, and one person has died.
Arab leaders are moving forward to finally implement a proposed $2 billion program to revamp the faltering economies across the region amid fears of protests such as those that brought down Tunisia's government.
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 had seemed more stable than many in the region.
British Foreign Minister William Hague warned that it would be wrong to expect events in Tunisia to spark similar protests against other authoritarian regimes in the region.
"It's important to avoid thinking that the circumstances of one country are automatically replicated in another, even neighboring, country," he told BBC radio Tuesday.
Associated Press writers Angela Doland and Julien Proult in Paris, David Stringer in London, Desmond Butler in Washington and Anita Snow at the United Nations contributed to this report.