Tunis in Transition

Tunis in Transition

Tens of thousands of people have filled the streets throughout Tunis, dozens of prison inmates have been killed in a prison fire, while looters emptied shops and torched the main train station with gunfire echoing through the capital. The popular rebellion in Tunisia has forced President Ben Ali to flee his country – finding a haven in Saudi Arabia – but leaving the country in an uproar.
Ben Ali left after 23 years of iron-fisted rule. In the space of 24 hours, power has changed hands twice. Quickly closing the gap of power, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi stepped in briefly with a vague assumption of power that initially left open the possibility that Ben Ali could return. However, with the president now officially out of the country permanently, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, Foad Mebazaa, has temporarily taken the highest office, and has two months to organize new elections.

Debates rage in Tunisia over how the post-Ben Ali transition should be handled and whether the current constitutional framework should be strictly followed. Some want new elections in less than two months but many in the opposition will not stand for any elections that take place under the current electoral law, which restricts many parties from presenting candidates for the presidency, and rightly insist that elections should be run by an independent electoral commission rather than the elite of the ruling RCD party. There is also the question of the participation of banned parties, such as the long repressed Islamist party an-Nahda (a Muslim Brotherhood modeled movement).

With only 60 days, the new interim government has little time to make such changes. Tunisia’s newest challenge is how a consensus can be formed about how to proceed.

Challenges hover over interim president Ghannouchi with no clear leadership and insufficient moral authority to break up the demonstrations. It may be days before the situation resolves itself and the army is eager to restore order. Interim President Ghannouchi is meeting with the opposition on January 16 and one of the points of discussion is the very definition of his position, as well as whether El-Nahda’s Islamists become part of an interim coalition government. There is no indication at present that Tunisians are accepting any government as legitimate and Ghannouchi will have to move quickly to build a credible alliance. In this case, the international community may have a role in conferring legitimacy, or else he must step aside for someone who can.

This time is crucial for Tunisia. It does not want to simply trade one dictator for another, and it needs a transitional government that can make the streets safe and make people feel confident that the country will embrace a genuine democratic transition.