Tunisia`s embattled government mulls major revamp

The head of the Army warned a "power vacuum" could lead to a dictatorship.

Tunis: Tunisia braced for a major cabinet shake-up on Tuesday following days of protests to topple the interim government, in charge after a mass uprising ended president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali`s 23-year rule.

The head of the Army warned a "power vacuum" could lead to a dictatorship as protestors defied a curfew for a second night to camp outside Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi`s office in a bid to oust the caretaker administration.

Demonstrators are opposed to the new government because it still includes figures from the ousted regime, including Ghannouchi.

"Our revolution, your revolution, the revolution of the young, risks being lost ... There are forces that are calling for a void, a power vacuum. The void brings terror, which brings dictatorship," Army chief Rachid Ammar said.

The popular general said the Army would act as a "guarantor" for the revolution that ousted Ben Ali as he urged demonstrators on Monday to let "this government or another one" work.

But hundreds, braving ice-cold winds, hunkered down for a second night on Monday in front of the Prime Minister offices in defiance of a curfew that remains in place as the government struggles to restore order.

Taieb Baccouch, a spokesman for the government and the education minister, meanwhile said that a cabinet reshuffle involving at least six ministerial posts was being discussed and could be announced on Tuesday.

"In total there will be a minimum of six, if not more, posts vacant and this will definitely necessitate a cabinet reshuffle, possibly between now and tomorrow," he said in an interview a week after the government was announced.

Five ministers have already announced their resignation from the government.

There were some violent scenes at a rally in the city centre on Monday as security forces fired tear gas and sealed off the area with barbed wire.

Some protesters threw stones, charged police lines and smashed a police car.

"Resign scum!" the protesters chanted in front of the Prime Minister`s offices.

Many of the protesters had made their way to the capital from the impoverished rural parts of Tunisia where the uprising began and held up pictures of victims of Ben Ali`s bloody crackdown in recent weeks.

US Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman, the top-ranking US official on the Middle East, pressed the caretaker government on democratic reforms and new elections.

"We`re prepared to provide any support that would be needed or requested," the visiting envoy said after meeting Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane in Tunis.

"We have heard the voice of the Tunisian people loud and clear," Feltman said.

Tunisia is still in the midst of upheaval and on Monday primary schools remained shut despite an order to re-open after teachers called an "unlimited" strike against the government.

Some universities are to start re-opening on Tuesday. Schools and universities had been shut down by Ben Ali in a failed bid to stop the protests widening.

The General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), which called the teachers strike, has refused to recognise the new government because it keeps in place important figures from the ousted regime including Ghannouchi.

Many Tunisians feel the same and have kept up daily protests, calling also for the destruction of Ben Ali`s RCD party.

Ghannouchi, in place since 1999, says he will resign only after the state`s first democratic elections since independence from France in 1956.

He said the vote could be held within six months but has not set a date.

Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14 amid a wave of protests.

Tunisia`s new transitional government has since unveiled unprecedented democratic reforms including allowing full media freedoms, releasing political prisoners and registering political parties that were banned under Ben Ali.

The movement against Ben Ali began after a 26-year-old fruit vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, set fire to himself to protest police abuses.

Bureau Report

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