Tunisia at Crossroads

While demonstrations continue, the former ruling party tries to form an interim government.

The worst of the protests in Tunisia may be over, and the man that most Tunisians otherwise refer to as a tyrant and a criminal may be gone, but the aftermath of the popular revolt is just starting to solidify in the country’s politics.

The security situation in Tunisia remains hostile in some areas of the country, particularly in areas of Tunis, the capital, where the headquarters of Ben Ali’s regime are located. Protesters, young and old, are continuing to ransack government property. Some private businesses that were tied to the president’s family have been destroyed and merchandise has been stolen as well. Yet when one considers the enormous wealth and graft that Ben Ali and his kin surrounded themselves with, often in stark contrast to the typical unemployed Tunisian, reporters and analysts should have seen this sign of displeasure coming.

Reports are even circulating that the Tunisian military is battling militias loyal to Ben Ali in some areas of the capital. The interior minister, one of the most powerful figures in the country only a week ago, was arrested by police on charges of inciting violence on the streets after Ben Ali’s departure.

The scenes on the street may still be chaotic, but this is not stopping Tunisia from taking the first step toward forming a new government and quelling the remaining demonstrations. After negotiations with three of Tunisia’s opposition parties, Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi has announced the formation of a new interim government.

From Ghannouchi’s point of view, the announcement is both strategic and practical. On the practical side, Tunisia was operating without an effective government since Ben Ali’s departure, so the prime minister needed to take action to at least assert a minimal degree of control (with the help of the army). But at the strategic level, the new coalition government could have been a ploy by Ghannouchi, a top ally of Ben Ali’s, to preserve some of the former regime’s influence during the transition. Indeed, Ghannounchi has a personal stake in this entire process — he has been prime minister since 1999, so it would be safe to assume that he is opposed to giving up the perks that come with being a Tunisian official.

The Tunisian people may already have called Ghannouchi’s bluff. In interviews with the The New York Times, ordinary Tunisians and members of the opposition are wary of accepting this new government. Some fear that it is simply a continuation of the old regime with a few new faces. In some cases, they are right: the ministers of interior, finance, foreign affairs and defense are all still held by members of Ben Ali’s former ruling party. There have been a few posts given to oppositional factions, but they are minor ones at best. Ahmed Najib Chebbi of the Progressive Democratic Party, for instance, has been granted the post of secretary for regional economic development. That will hardly placate the thousands of Tunisians who are more than willing to return to the streets.

This is a critical time for Tunisia as a country. The post-Ben Ali era could either see the emergence of a truly democratic system in the Arab world, or it could form into another case of autocracy. Ben Ali’s party has made some promising rhetorical steps — lifting media censorship, investigating abuses by the security services, pledging economic reform — but true change will only come when all legitimate constituencies (including Islamists) are included.