TUNIS a standoff between street protesters and the Tunisian authorities deepened on Wednesday as officials first promised and then postponed a reshuffling of the interim government that has been clinging to power since the ouster of the former dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
The interim government, condemned by protesters because of its domination by former officials of Mr. Ben Ali’s administration, continued to move against the former president. The justice minister, one of Mr. Ben Ali’s former lieutenants, said the government had issued an international arrest warrant for the former president and his family on charges of corruption and enriching themselves at public expense. The interim authorities are also bringing to trial six former members of Mr. Ben Ali’s personal security force for inciting violence.
Complying with requests from the interim government, Reuters reported that the Swiss authorities said they had frozen more than $10 million in assets belonging to the Ben Ali family, and Interpol issued a global alert for the arrest of Mr. Ben Ali and six family members. Other governments are moving to freeze the Ben Ali family’s assets as well.
Hundreds of protesters who drove to the capital from the impoverished southern provinces have been camped outside the prime minister’s office since the weekend, sleeping on mattresses and eating food donated by local residents. Hundreds of others join them each day to chant for the dissolution of the interim government, and by Wednesday the protesters were visibly exhausted.
As the crowd exceeded 1,000, some scaled the walls of government buildings, toppled a lamppost and nearly pulled a police officer out of his armored car. In the Old City, the police fired tear gas to clear a street near the Justice Ministry while soldiers closed off side streets. Later, soldiers fired shots in the air to try to calm the crowd around the prime minister’s office.
In a country where public officials have seldom if ever faced a free press, the justice minister, Lazhar Karoui Chebbi, held a news conference that devolved into a shouting match with Tunisian journalists. He sat at the head of a long green conference table surrounded by throngs of journalists who peppered him with questions about the conduct of the old government, the brief closing this week of a television network and other topics. (He said that he was not responsible for prosecuting former officials or police officers, and that the network closing had been a mistake.)
He announced that in the chaos surrounding Mr. Ben Ali’s departure, about 11,000 inmates — a third of Tunisia’s prison population — had escaped. He said nearly 2,500 other prisoners had been released by the interim government, presumably referring to the announced release of political detainees.
As the minister spoke, the chants of protesters calling for the release of still more prisoners resounded in the streets, while the families of prisoners nearly blocked the steps to the ministry and the hall outside the room. At the Education Ministry next door, college graduates lined up to apply for teaching positions, hoping to capitalize on an open-door policy instituted after Mr. Ben Ali’s fall.
Government officials have insisted that only members of the old ruling party have the experience necessary to guide the country to free elections in six months, and they appear to be trying to wait out the protests. Officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have suggested they are looking for a protest leader to emerge in order to negotiate an end to the impasse.
The protesters, meanwhile, say history gives them no reason to trust the same people who helped Mr. Ben Ali rule Tunisia for 23 years. “They must all go and let us build this country with our brains and our hands,” said Amina Azouz, a Tunisian graduate student at the Sorbonne and online activist, protesting outside the prime minister’s office. “Please, leave us alone!”
Several said they were eagerly awaiting the prime minister’s expected news conference. But by nightfall, the protesters prepared to bed down once again, surrounded by tanks, barbed wire and dozens of soldiers.