Thousands of Tunisian police, national guard, firemen and street cleaners thronged central Tunis on Saturday, distancing themselves from deposed president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in the largest demonstration for days.
Hundreds broke through a half-hearted police cordon at the office of Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi: "No place for men of tyranny in a national unity government," read one banner.
Ghannouchi, who stayed on to head a would-be unity coalition when strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled a week ago, made an emotional late-night plea for patience on television on Friday. He portrayed himself as a fellow victim and pledged to end his political career as soon as he could organise elections.
But as he held meetings with cabinet colleagues on Saturday, thousands of people on the streets of Tunis and other towns demonstrated their rejection of what many call his token attempt to co-opt a handful of little-known dissidents into government.
The protest marks a turning point in the Tunisian uprising, throughout which Ben Ali loyalists in the police force fired on crowds, beat protesters with batons and shot teargas even at relatively small and peaceful gatherings.
"We came out today because we want national reconciliation," said a policeman who identified himself as Hatem. "Many people in the security forces were wrong... some ignorant people sullied our reputation ... People know now."
One demonstrator outside the premier's office said: "We want to tell Mr Ghannouchi the definition of 'revolution' -- it means a radical change, not keeping on the same prime minister."
Tunisia's interior minister has said 78 people have been killed since the start of the demonstrations, but the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights put the number at 117, including 70 killed by live fire.
Ben Ali, who was interior minister when he ousted Tunisian independence leader and long-time president Habib Bourguiba in 1987, had long used the police and internal security forces as a blunt tool of repression.
Tunisians interviewed in recent weeks have said repeatedly that they feared the interior ministry's officers the most.
"We are innocent of the blood of martyrs," chanted some of the police protesters.
It was police harassment of a young vegetable seller last month which prompted him to burn himself to death in protest at unemployment and corrupt rule, triggering the wave of unrest.
Uniformed policemen kissed the Tunisian flag and firemen climbed atop a red fire truck that moved through crowds filling the tree-lined Bourguiba Avenue and surrounding area.
Many complained they were poorly paid and victims of Ben Ali's regime themselves. They demanded a union to campaign for their rights. Some tried to pull soldiers, posted at the end of the road, into the crowds. The army has refused to crack down on the demonstrators from the start, a factor that analysts say made it impossible for Ben Ali to remain as leader.
"Citizens have got the wrong idea about the police," said another protester. "We in the Tunisian police were also oppressed. We have nothing."
Another protester, Habib Dridi, said Ghannouchi was "too late" in making apologies and distancing himself from a system he served at cabinet level for 20 years: "We need people with a new mentality. People with dirty hands cannot implement a clean programme," he said. "He needs to apologise and withdraw."
Demand for change
Former leaders of Ben Ali's ruling party, the RCD, have retained high profile ministries such as interior and foreign affairs in Ghannouchi's makeshift unity coalition. Dissident politicians brought into government were given less influential posts such as higher education and regional development.
Five ministers have already quit the interim government, including one opponent of Ben Ali and three representatives of Tunisia's big trade union, a key player in the revolt.
Ahmed Ibrahim, leader of the opposition Ettajdid Party and newly named minister of higher education, tried on Friday to justify his role: "This government is only temporary, real representation will come through elections ... The government is not in the hands of the ruling party, this claim is false."
"The government's priority is stabilising the situation, protecting people's safety and security."
It is unclear when elections for president and parliament might be held. Leaders of fragmented opposition groups, some of them newly returned from exile, say they might need six months to get Tunisians simply to know who they are.