TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisian politicians are negotiating the creation of a council to oversee the interim government, people close to the talks said Monday after days of street protests demanding that the cabinet resign.
They said the council would be tasked with protecting the revolution that toppled veteran president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali this month, amid widespread complaints that former members of the ruling party are trying to cling on to power.
The council is expected to include respected opposition politician Ahmed Mestiri, whom a range of opposition politicians and former members of the ruling RCD believe they can work with.
The news came as the Tunisian army general who refused to support Ben Ali’s crackdown on protesters warned that a political vacuum could bring back dictatorship.
“Our revolution is your revolution. The revolution of the youth could be lost and could be exploited by those who call for a vacuum,” General Rashid Ammar told crowds outside the prime minister’s office, where protesters have demanded that Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi quit.
“The army will protect the revolution,” he said.
Ammar’s decision to withdraw support from Ben Ali is widely seen as a turning point that eventually forced him to leave the country on January 14 after weeks of popular protests.
Protesters, mostly from marginalized rural areas, camped out for a second night at the prime minister’s office Monday.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman arrived in Tunis and met officials including Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane to discuss plans for democratic reforms and elections.
“We are prepared to provide any support that would be appropriate or requested but we are mostly taking steps now to show our support for what the people of Tunisia themselves have said that they want to happen,” he told state media.
The Tunisians’ revolt has electrified millions across the Arab world who suffer similarly from unemployment, rising prices and corrupt rule, often by leaders backed by Western powers as a bulwark against radical Islam.
Egypt’s government has warned activists hoping to emulate Tunisia’s protesters they face arrest if they go ahead on Tuesday with a mass demonstration billed as the “Day of Wrath.”
Sihem Bensedrine, a rights activist and head of the non-governmental National Council for Liberties, said an announcement on the new supervisory council could come any day.
“The idea is to create a kind of council for safeguarding the revolution,” she said.
“We are negotiating with the transitional government. We had contacts with some ministers in the new government and head of the committee for political reform,” she said, referring to a committee created by the government to revise Tunisia’s laws to allow free elections and prevent the rise of a new strongman.
Bensedrine said Ben Ali’s rubber-stamp parliament would be dissolved under the new plan, and the council would be given the power to supervise the interim government, which could retain Ghannouchi as prime minister.
The council would issue an electoral code and hold elections for a basic parliament that would rewrite the constitution. It would include Tunisia’s powerful labor union, the bar association, civil society groups and political parties including Ennahda, the country’s largest Islamist group, which was banned under Ben Ali.
“This will appease the anger of the public, it’s a solution to get out of this crisis and a way to establish people’s confidence,” she said.
Larbi Sadiki, politics professor at Exeter University in England, said he had been privy to the discussions and that veteran politicians from the era of Tunisian independence leader Habib Bourguiba were involved behind the scenes.
One of them is Mestiri, who broke with Bourguiba in the 1960s over lack of democracy and set up his own political party.
“Mestiri is definitely a really positive element. He stood against Bourguiba and set up his own party,” Sadiki said, describing him as a consensual figure acceptable to both secularists and Islamists.
A cabinet reshuffle is also expected within the next few days to fill ministries vacated by a slew of resignations, though this could include changes to other portfolios, Education Minister Tayeb Baccouche said.
“As part of the consultations, there is expected to be a reshuffle in the coming days,” he told Reuters.
Five ministers have resigned since the interim cabinet was announced last week, including three representatives of the powerful labor union and one opposition leader.
Earlier, police fired teargas canisters to disperse protesters in Tunis. “Are they afraid the government will really be shaken? It seems that Ben Ali’s regime is back,” said demonstrator Kamal Ashour earlier.
The government agreed to offer 500 million dinars ($354 million) in compensation to the families of those killed in the month-long uprising, regional development minister Nejib Chebbi said, adding it would pay 150 dinars a month to the unemployed.
It would also replace some provincial governors after protesters complained of corruption and repression.
Police put under house arrest Abdelwahhab Abdalla, the Ben Ali political adviser in charge of monitoring the media, state television said. The interim government said last week 33 members of Ben Ali’s family had been arrested. Sunday, police arrested two confidants of Ben Ali.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said France, the former colonial power, would offer emergency aid to Tunisia as it grapples with a transition to a new government. He acknowledged criticism of Paris’s past support for Ben Ali.
“There was a desperation, a suffering, a feeling of suffocation which, we have to admit, we did not properly assess,” he said at a Paris news conference.
Sarkozy said France would hunt down wealth plundered during Ben Ali’s time in power and return it to Tunisians, and the Paris prosecutor said later it had opened a preliminary investigation into his French assets.
Additional reporting by Ashraf Fahim and Lin Noueihed in Tunis and Catherine Bremer and Yann Le Guernigou in Paris; writing by Giles Elgood; editing by Alison Williams