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Tunisian military sides with interim government

Confusion still reigns after Ben Ali’s ouster; Former aides are arrested

By David D. Kirkpatrick
New York Times / January 17, 2011

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TUNIS — New battle lines appeared to take shape in traumatized Tunisia yesterday as the military backed the interim government in what state media portrayed as a fight against security forces loyal to ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, blaming them for the violence and rioting that has engulfed the country since protests forced him from power 48 hours earlier.

State television reported that the military had arrested Ben Ali’s former security chief, Ali Seriati, charging him with plotting against the government and inciting acts of violence. It also said a gunfight with Ben Ali’s security forces broke out near a former presidential palace here in the capital, and that the military had called in reinforcements as it battled other security forces in the southern part of the country.

Ben Ali’s nephew, Kais Ben Ali, was among another group arrested on suspicion of “shooting at random’’ from police cars, Agence France-Presse reported. And there were reports that the ousted president’s former interior minister, Rafiq Belhaj Kacem, had been arrested in his hometown for unspecified reasons.

The state news reports underscored the military’s growing role in sustaining the interim civilian government, sometimes against elements of the police force. It became clear yesterday that the military had stepped forward to help calm the streets of the capital, displacing and controlling the gangs of newly deputized police officers who had sometimes terrorized residents the day before.

As virtually the only pillar of government left intact, the military could play a pivotal role in determining whether a new autocrat or the first Arab democracy emerges from the tumult that brought down Ben Ali, who fled for Saudi Arabia Friday.

But determining who was in control or who was fighting whom here is also growing increasingly difficult. It was unclear how much responsibility Ben Ali’s loyalists bore for the chaos, or whether they were scapegoats. Many Tunisians, still seething at the flagrant corruption and brutal repression of Ben Ali’s rule, have been insisting without evidence for days that any riots and looting were the work of his police officers.

A tendency by the police to overreact illustrated the confusion.

About 3 p.m., a mob that included police officers arrested about a dozen Swedes after a search found weapons cases in their taxis; they were later determined to be a party of hunters in Tunisia to bag wild boar.

Later, the police arrested four men carrying German passports, according to state television, on suspicion of firing shots at an opposition party headquarters, though no motive was provided.

The protests have been fueled in large part by anger at the great fortunes amassed in recent years by members of the president’s family as everyday Tunisians suffered soaring unemployment, and the rage evidently burned on after the family was gone.

Rioters ransacked several family mansions along with the Carthage headquarters of the president’s ruling party. They set scores of cars on fire apparently because they were sold at dealerships owned by the president’s billionaire son-in-law.

Fouad Mebazaa, the speaker of parliament and interim president, and Mohamed Ghannouchi, the prime minister ,met yesterday with opposition party leaders about forming a unity government. Both are close allies of Ben Ali from the ruling party.

Ghannouchi announced that he expected to present a new unity government today. He is expected to push the deadline for new elections back from 60 days to six months. Tunisian analysts said that the new government might allow the political participation of banned parties like the Islamists.

General Rachid Ammar, the country’s top military official, is believed to have guided recent events in the government, including helping to usher Ben Ali from the scene.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the Tunisian foreign minister, Kamel Morjane. She urged the new government to address popular concerns about economic opportunities, civil liberties, and democratic elections, the State Department said in a statement.

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