Tunisian Interior Minister Says Security Services Spark Unrest

Tunisia’s new interior minister accused members of the security services of instigating unrest to thwart efforts to establish democracy following the ouster of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Farhat Rajhi also announced the detention of his predecessor, Rafik Belhaj Kacem, who led the crackdown in December and January against protesters seeking to end Ben Ali’s 23-year rule. Kacem will spend a renewable period of three days under arrest for interrogation, Rajhi told Hannibal TV channel. Forty-two senior security officials were replaced, including the heads of general security and presidential security, he said.

“There is a conspiracy against state security,” said Rajhi, who alleged that some of the security forces were behind recent looting incidents, including those in which gangs entered schools in the capital of Tunis.

Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14, ending a 23-year rule, after the army refused to put down demonstrations that overwhelmed his internal security forces. The transitional government took over, vowing within six months to hold the North African nation’s first free elections since independence from France in 1956.

“Violence and chaos is right now the biggest risk to a transition to democracy,” Mohsen Marzouki, a Tunisian who heads the Qatar-based Arab Democracy Foundation, said by telephone. “The old regime is sending a signal that it still holds key positions and that the purge against its members should not go far, as it can make life difficult for any new leadership.”

Attacks were carried out on schools, public buildings and shops in Kasserine, Sfax, Beni Khlad and Medenine, with police failing to intervene, the Assabah newspaper reported today.

‘Stakes Are High’

“The stakes are high for the transitional government,” Maouia Kaabi, a financial consultant in Tunis, said in telephone interview. “Security is needed if we are to fill our 200,000 hotel beds with tourists.”

Tourism accounts for 7 percent of the $40 billion economy and employs 400,000 people. Unemployment exceeds 13 percent of the workforce and two of every three jobless Tunisians are below 30, according to the International Monetary Fund.

The movement against Ben Ali started in mid-December as a protest against poverty.

Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in the central town of Sidi Bouzid, set himself on fire when a municipality official confiscated his wares and humiliated him, sparking the unrest, according to local media. The United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights said the death toll was at least 219.

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