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New Tunisia Government Awaited; Protests Continue

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Tunisian security forces fired tear gas to repel angry demonstrators Monday as the country’s interim leaders prepared to announce a new government that for the first time will include opposition members.

Helicopters swirled overhead at the demonstration in central Tunis as authorities haltingly tried to stabilize the North African nation after days of unrest. There were also unconfirmed reports of the arrest or killing of gunmen behind shooting rampages since autocratic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on Friday.

“Ben Ali must be judged,” read one sign in English at the demonstration, whose protesters soon dispersed. Some were demanding that Ben Ali’s ruling party be locked out of any future power-sharing arrangement.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, a longtime ally of Ben Ali, said a new national unity government was likely to be announced later Monday that would include former regime opponents -- a move that would mark an unprecedented transition of power in the Arab world.

The European Union said Monday it stands ready to help Tunisia become a democracy and will offer economic aid. EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said the 27-nation bloc is willing to “prepare and organize the electoral process” in Tunisia.

Finance Minister Christine Lagarde of France -- a former colonial overseer of Tunisia -- told French radio that Paris is keeping a close watch on the assets of Tunisians in French banks.

After years of living under Ben Ali’s feared police squads, Tunisians now look to the army to keep them safe.

On Sunday, a fierce gun battle raged in central Tunis. For three hours the sounds of shooting cracked through the air and a helicopter circled overhead. Citizens were confined indoors long before their usual eight o’clock curfew.

Those in hotels were told to stay away from windows because of sniper fire. Earlier in the day, the army arrested former president Ben Ali’s security chief, who was accused of ordering the killings of civilians and plotting against the state. Human rights activist Masoud Ramdhani said the gunfight broke out as the army tried to root out other members of Ben Ali’s elite police force.

Ramdhani and other Tunisians say Ben Ali’s henchmen are sowing chaos to try to make the country fail. The former Tunisian president built his system with the help of his powerful police force. According to one European human rights report, they played a role in all political, social and cultural aspects of Tunisian life.

Tunisians downright loathe Ben Ali’s personal security police, especially since his forces opened fire on protesters over the last month. Cell phone videos posted on Facebook showing the killing of protesters by police snipers enraged people and helped stoke the revolution.

An NPR reporter witnessed policemen beating young protesters with truncheons in a back alley under her hotel window just before Ben Ali fled. Minutes later, a frightened young man knocked at the reporter’s door, asking if she could hide him from the police.

Since Ben Ali’s departure, the veil of fear is slowly lifting. Benusef Houtman, 60, explains -- out on the open streets -- how Tunisians feel about the police and the army. He says he never would have talked so openly a week ago.

Houtman says he and other Tunisians welcome the army. It’s seen as a professional force that’s politically neutral. The army also refused Ben Ali’s orders to fire on protesters. Now, Houtman says, the army is protecting the Tunisian people from Ben Ali’s thugs. Moncef Marzouki is the head of a Tunisian opposition party and has been living in exile in Paris for the last decade. He’ll be coming home this week to take part in Tunisia’s new democracy.

“All the Tunisian people are confident in the army,” he says. “That they will stop these gangs who are trying to sow confusion. And that they will be the guarantor of our peaceful transition to democracy.

In the power vacuum left by Ben Ali, officials are scrambling to set up an interim government and restore order. But many Tunisians believe the gravest danger is conflict between the military and the well-armed squads of security police. Sunday night’s gun battle suggests they may be right. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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