Exiles Returning to Tunisia: 'A Long Way to True Democracy'

Interim President Fouad Mebazaa and Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi resigned their membership in the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD ) party.

TUNIS - Four ministers in Tunisia's temporary unity government resigned on Monday as police continued to violently quell protests demanding that members of the ruling party be ousted from the new government.

Meanwhile, some of Tunisia's political exiles have begun to return home. "We have a lot of work to do until Tunisia is truly democratic," one former exile told Haaretz.

Interim President Fouad Mebazaa and Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi yesterday resigned their membership in the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD ) party, formerly led by ex-President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Speaking to French television, Ghannouchi called on Tunisians to avoid a witch hunt.

Their resignation followed threats by opposition leaders to resign if members of the ruling party continued to serve in the government.

Despite the government's promise that all political prisoners would be released, the opposition said hundreds of activists are still in jail.

However, there were some signs of optimism at the Tunis airport yesterday as political exiles began to return - though the interim government has not yet promised not to arrest them.

Some 200 people were at the airport yesterday to greet the exiled head of the Congress for the Republic party, Moncef Marzouki, who was forced out of the country in 2002 after his party was outlawed.

Returning with him was another activist, Imad Daimi, who has been living in France for the past 20 years. "I am very glad to finally return to my country, but there is a lot of work to do until Tunisia is truly democratic and all citizens must do their part," he told Haaretz.

Marzouki said in Paris before leaving for Tunisia that he intends to run for president. At the airport yesterday, he told his supporters that Ben Ali should be returned to Tunisia to stand trial for human rights violations and embezzlement.

"Don't let anyone steal this blessed revolution from you," he said. "We don't want revenge, but we are determined in our demand that this terrible party not return."

Marzouki's party is still formally outlawed, as are other opposition parties, including the Islamic parties and the Communist party.

Radya Nasrawy, an attorney and president of the Tunisian Association against Torture, said yesterday that reports continue of illegal arrests and torture. "Journalists who reported on the protests are still in jail, and this will apparently not change until members of the RCD leave the government," she said.

The attitude of the police seems to have changed since Ben Ali's departure. Groups of more than 1,000 people have been allowed to gather on the capital's main street, Habib Bourguiba Boulevard. But police repeatedly assaulted them with batons and tear gas, forcing them into side streets and threatening news photographers.

The protesters seemed undaunted by the violent response of the police. "We will not give up. We demand full democracy and a trial for the corrupt," said Salim Aadin, a 22-year-old student.