- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 19, 2011

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — A Tunisian prosecutor opened an investigation Wednesday into the overseas assets of the ousted president and his deeply resented family, as Tunisian authorities worked to restore order amid street protests against remnants of the former regime.

The move came as hundreds of protesters led a peaceful — if noisy — rally in central Tunis, demanding that former allies of deposed President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stop clinging to power.

Mr. Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on Friday after 23 years in power, and a caretaker government run by his longtime prime minister is now struggling to calm tensions. The fragile state of the government highlights Tunisians’ questions about who is in control of this moderate Muslim nation on the Mediterranean Sea, popular among European tourists and seen as an ally in the West’s fight against terrorism.

The official TAP news agency says the prosecutor’s office moved to investigate bank accounts, real estate and other assets held by Mr. Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi and other relatives. His relatives — especially his wife’s family — were seen as corrupt and dominated many businesses in the nation.

Meanwhile, the Swiss president said Wednesday that her country’s federal council agreed to freeze any assets in Switzerland belonging to Mr. Ben Ali, to help work up a possible criminal case over alleged stolen funds.

In Berlin, a German official said the European Union was working on a joint position or concrete proposals on Tunisia, which could include a decision on how to handle Mr. Ben Ali’s assets in Europe.

Tunisia’s interim government, already hobbled by defections, was expected to hold its first Cabinet meeting Wednesday afternoon. It also eased back the hours of a curfew initiated in the final days of Mr. Ben Ali’s rule — ended after a deadly revolt swept up the streets nationwide.

TAP said that “in the wake of an improvement in the security situation in the country,” a new curfew would take effect from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. — from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m. previously.

At the Tunis protest Wednesday, protesters sang nationalist songs and held up signs with “RCD Out!” — referring to Mr. Ben Ali’s former ruling party — as they rallied on central Avenue Bourguiba. White-and-blue police vans lined the route.

“We want the old government out — and we want them away from anything that has to do with the government,” said Hafed al Maki, 50, who works at the country’s largest insurance company. He said he and colleagues staged a strike and overthrew their manager Tuesday.

He said he would not wait for the 60-day time limit for new presidential elections “because that is enough time for the old cronies to set their roots in and start their old ways again, thieving and taking our resources. No way that’s happening again.”

Some protesters carried a coffin-like black box with the letters RCD painted in white, and banged the side of the coffin as they walked up and down. Others chanted, or sang.

The atmosphere was boisterous but not as combative as other protests in recent days — or as in the deadly protests leading up to Mr. Ben Ali’s downfall, in which police fired at protesters hurling stones and setting buildings ablaze.

The interim government under Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi was already weakened after four ministers resigned Tuesday — within 24 hours after being appointed to the unprecedented multiparty Cabinet.

An airport official said the Tunisian foreign minister, Kamal Merjan, left the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el Sheik on Wednesday before the start of an Arab League summit, without giving any reason.

The unrest has also rattled Tunisia’s economy, which has seen impressive growth in recent years. Moody’s Investor Service downgraded Tunisia’s government bond ratings Wednesday, citing “significant uncertainties” surrounding Tunisia’s economic and political future.

Moody’s cut the rating by one notch, to “Baa3” from “Baa2,” and also downgraded its outlook to negative from stable. The new rating is one notch above “junk bond” status.

Labor unions, students and members of the Ennahdha Islamist party — which Mr. Ben Ali banned in 1992 and cracked down upon for years — have been among those protesting since his ouster.

A new unity government announced Monday was mostly made up of old guard politicians. A day later, at least four opposition ministers quit, aligning themselves with demonstrators who insist democratic change is impossible with former Ben Ali supporters still in power.

Mr. Ghannouchi and interim president Fouad Mebazaa, the former speaker of the lower house of parliament, quit the ruling RCD party Tuesday in an attempt to distance themselves from Mr. Ben Ali. The party itself kicked out Mr. Ben Ali, its founder, national TV reported.

The protests began in December, after an educated but unemployed 26-year-old man set himself on fire when police confiscated the fruit and vegetables he was selling without a permit. The move hit a nerve among frustrated jobless youths and prompted protests around the nation. Officials say 78 protesters and civilians died in the protests that swept Mr. Ben Ali from power — many killed by police bullets.

Mr. Ben Ali was often criticized for a heavy-handed repression against his opponents, curbing civil liberties and running a police state — though he was praised for developing tourism and allying with the U.S. against terrorism.

Bowing to protesters’ demands in recent days, Mr. Ghannouchi has pledged to free political prisoners, lift restrictions on the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights and create state panels to investigate bribery and abuses during the upheaval.

Bouazza Ben Bouazza in Tunis, Maggie Michael in Cairo, and Greg Keller in Paris contributed to this report.

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