Tunisia names new government, scraps secret police

TUNIS Mon Mar 7, 2011 1:54pm EST

Tunisian interim prime minister Beji Caid Sebsi speaks during a news conference in Tunis March 4, 2011. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

Tunisian interim prime minister Beji Caid Sebsi speaks during a news conference in Tunis March 4, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Zoubeir Souissi

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TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia's interim authorities on Monday named a new government and disbanded the feared state security apparatus, notorious for human rights abuses under the ousted autocrat Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Seeking to assert their authority and gain legitimacy in the eyes of protesters who forced Ben Ali to flee on January 14, the caretaker authorities are attacking the remaining vestiges of his 23-year rule, one by one.

Prime Minister Beji Caid Sebsi unveiled a new cabinet of technocrats rather than career politicians, none of whom had served in previous governments under Ben Ali.

He told a press conference the ministers had been chosen in the public interest to see through a delicate transition until Tunisians elect a national constituent assembly on July 24.

"This is a temporary government which will be in office for only 4-1/2 months, to save the country from the grave situation it finds itself in," he said.

Shortly after the cabinet line-up was announced, an Interior Ministry spokesman said Ben Ali's political police and state security apparatus had been dissolved -- a core demand behind the popular uprising.

"I can confirm that it was decided to terminate them. We will take other decisions that will please the people," he said.

The twin security organs had functioned as a domestic spy agency with wide powers to suppress opposition to the regime.

Their officers monitored opposition politicians and journalists, could arrest people at will, and were accused by rights groups of torturing detainees.

"DREAM COME TRUE"

More recently, many demonstrators had said state security agents were infiltrating their protests to stir up violence and trigger a backlash against the uprising.

"It is a dream come true for everyone," said Ali Larayedh, a member of the moderate Islamist Ennahda movement, which has just been allowed back on the political stage after a two-decade ban.

"People have suffered because of them. They wrecked politics, the media and the judiciary in this country," Larayedh, who said he himself had spent 14 years as a political prisoner, told Reuters.

Tunisia has been struggling to restore stability since Ben Ali's departure nearly two months ago.

The protests that led to his overthrow have provided the inspiration for uprisings in other parts of the Arab world, but repeated outbreaks of violence have threatened to derail Tunisia's own transition toward democracy.

Caid Sebsi, 84, was appointed on February 27 after two previous caretaker administrations collapsed under pressure from protesters demanding that Ben Ali's old guard, including his long-time premier Mohamed Ghannouchi, be purged from government.

The new premier said his priority was security.

"Without it we can't have economic development or a political agenda. We want foreigners to visit. People do not invest their money if they are not convinced the situation is calm," he said.

None of the ministers in the 22-strong new government will be allowed to stand in future elections.

Asked if protesters would be satisfied with the latest concessions, Caid Sebsi noted that the Tunis square where demonstrators had staged sit-ins until Friday was now empty.

"They are not there anymore, they left spontaneously and that proves that they trust me. I will not betray their trust."

(Writing by Silvia Aloisi; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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