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Tunisia’s Jasmine revolution: hardy perennial or delicate flower?

Posted on Tuesday, 18 January 2011 13:57

Young people and engaged citizens have toppled a government in Tunisia and chased out a dictator. The country now has to reverse 23 years of single-party rule.

History is the dustbin of conservative forces, and Tunisia has just added another chapter to an already lengthy book. Former President Zine al Abidine Ben Ali tried to stop street protests by declaring them “terrorist acts”, but the army refused to follow through with the president’s orders and managed an orderly transition resulting in Ben Ali’s departure on 14 January. A government of national unity has been in place since 17 January, but the unwieldy political aftermath means that the lead-up to elections will be fraught with infighting. The whole ordeal left France embarrassed after it refused to allow the former president’s plane to land as he fled Tunisa, and has people across the Maghreb and the Middle East asking the question, who is next? Are the days of strong-armed authoritarianism in the region finally numbered?

It all started with the hallmarks of a Maghrebian non-event: student protests and weighty government promises. However, this time it was different. The government had declared 2010 as the year of Tunisian youth, but not everything works like clockwork there. Young people and the unemployed took to the streets to call for job creation and more accountable governance. They were met with violence, which stiffened their resolve, while the government vacillated between an iron fist and a hand extended in friendship and understanding.

President Ben Ali’s flight from the country on 14 January caused confusion about who would take over, which article of the constitution would determine the succession, and whether Ben Ali was temporarily or permanently unable to carry out his duties. The army initially announced that his incapacity was ‘temporary’. His departure also seemed to include plans for a reign of terror and then a victorious return to save the country: his secret police opened the doors to Tunis’s prisons and were responsible for much of the violence after the president’s departure. The 16 January arrest of head of presidential security Ali Seriati for fomenting unrest was supposed to be part of a plan to show that the government was able to get rid of the bad eggs behind the country’s real problems.

The Conseil Constitutionnel ruled on 15 January that National Assembly president Fouad Mebazaa would serve as transitional leader after it decided that the president’s absence was a permanent one. Ben Ali’s prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi is heading up talks with opposition leaders and helped to form a government of national unity on 17 January. The new government incorporates members of the opposition, civil society and the unions, but leaves power in the hands of ruling Rassemblement Constitutionel Démocratique (RCD) ministers. Some of the RCD ministers left in government are those who had previously fallen out with Ben Ali.

Oppositionist Ahmed Néjib Chebbi has taken control of the regional development portfolio, while Mustapha Ben Jaafar is in charge of health and Ahmed Ibrahim takes charge of the superior education portfolio. None of the consequential posts were given to members of the opposition. People in the streets were disappointed that the changes they are seeing are not that earth-shattering. Police used teargas to break up peaceful protests after unions and opposition parties expressed dissatisfaction with the outcome of their revolution. Uncertainty remains over the government’s final make-up after three of the newly appointed ministers from the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail withdrew on 18 January.

The same thing in a different form

The same president had ruled the country since 1987 and was accustomed to dealing with such difficult circumstances, but this time he showed a combination of indecisiveness and brutality. The protests started in the interior on 18 December and slowly spread to Tunis. The police responded with teargas and live bullets, while other protesters were met with insults and abuse. Talk began to circulate about promises of 300,000 new jobs to be created by 2012 – about 17 jobs per hour – but few were convinced. Ben Ali called the protesters terrorists and said that they must be in the pay of foreign interests.

News of government-backed oppression – real and imagined – spread by every means available: mobile phone, Twitter, Facebook and word of mouth. It was not a ‘Facebook revolution’, but Wikileaks reports and cyber circumstances all had a role to play in the mobilisation of people into the streets. US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley argued that leaked US diplomat cables did not cause the revolt: “The Tunisian people knew about corruption long ago.”

Ben Ali delivered an historic speech on 13 January, promising democratic reforms, a freer press and to begin his retirement in 2014. He said, “I have understood you” and promised to legalise opposition parties, to stop censoring the internet and to allow for the freedom to protest. All of that seemed too promising, and despite the government’s curfew, people continued to pour into the streets.

France’s Foreign Ministry first reacted by praising Ben Ali, his announcement that he would quit politics in 2014 and his promises of reform. Paris urged him to keep his promises on 14 January but then refused to allow his plane to land when he fled later that day. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s foreign policy has shown itself to be more pragmatic than principled, as France tries to run quickly behind the winds of change.

Just a piece of paper

How much of the current constitution will be followed will be a vexing political question for the days to come. Designed to protect Ben Ali and the ruling RCD, the constitution calls for elections to be held within two months and prohibits constitutional amendments during the transitional process. As such, it continues the RCD control of the nomination process because only candidates that are approved by the RCD-dominated parliament are able to run. Some RCD cadres have begun to abandon the party, but the opposition parties are weak after 23 years of political inertia.

While the Islamist opposition had been prohibited by the Ben Ali government, it is not yet clear what role it will play in the transition and how the country’s secularised politics will cope with the arrival of more politicised religious rhetoric. With the promise of the country’s first truly independent and democratic elections since the Ben Ali came to power in a coup in 1987, the political landscape has yet to reveal who will rise to the top of the political fray.

The opposition has already said that the two-month period to organise elections envisaged in the constitution is too short. Ahmed Néjib Chebbi, leader of the opposition Parti Démocrate Progressiste, said in mid-January that a period of six to seven months was necessary. There already seems to be a consensus among the main political actors that at least six months will be necessary to implement serious reforms. The current constitution would also bar Chebbi from running because he has not been the head of a recognised party for a period covering the last two years. The government of national unity has said that it would also conduct a vast anti-corruption campaign to reduce Ben Ali’s family’s influence on the country’s economic affairs. It is unlikely to get much done if it only has two months to act.

Meanwhile, the impact of events in Tunis are still being felt on the streets from Algiers to Damascus. A series of self-immolators have tried to shame governments in the region to follow Tunisia’s example.

Libya’s Moammar el Gadaffi asked, “What is this for? To change Zine al Abidine? Hasn’t he told you he would step down after three years? Be patient for three years and your son stays alive.” There has been a lot of talk about sons and politics in North Africa, but what the man in the street has to say about that may prove all the more important in the days to come.

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