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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Tunisia's Ben Ali Overthrown -What it means

Tunisia is in a state of flux following the ousting of its long-standing president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

After 23 years in office Ben Ali fled the country amid a mass uprising giving way to leadership changes that came at a dizzying speed.

In the last 48 hours, Tunisia has had three presidents. The first is the fugitive Ben Ali who fled on Friday; the second Ben Ali's longtime ally, prime minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, who stepped in briefly with a vague assumption of power that left open the possibility that Ben Ali could return and finally Fouad Mebazaa, leader of the house of parliament, who was given 60 days to organise new elections by the head of the Constitutional Council.

The council declared Ben Ali's departure was permanent and Mebazaa was sworn in on Saturday under Article 57 which stipulates that when the post of the president falls vacant due to his demise, resignation or total incapacitation ... the speaker of the parliament ... shall immediately undertake the presidential duties on temporary basis for not less than 45 days; and not more than 60 days.

The piece of legislation states that it is not permissible during the transitional presidential period to amend the constitution or impeach the government. And during this period, a new president shall be elected for the term of five years. The newly elected president may dissolve the parliament, and call for premature parliamentary election (in accordance with the provisions of Paragraph Second of Chapter 63).

The country's constitution provides the only framework for the interim government and the opposition to negotiate but it is more suited to leaders personally chosen by the absconded president.


Mebazaa promised to create a unity government that could include the long-ignored opposition, but it is not clear how far the 77-year-old Mebazaa, who has been part of Tunisia's ruling class for decades, would truly go to work with the opposition.

It was also unclear who would emerge as the country's top political leaders, since Ben Ali utterly dominated politics, placing allies in power and sending opponents into jail or exile.
Everything looked to have been choreographed to make sure of strict compliance with the constitution.

Observing the legal niceties is important as it sends an important signal to Tunisians that the rules are expected.

But back in 1987 Ben Ali, the then prime minister, became president in much the same way that Ghannouchi did on Friday. But instead of stepping aside he held on to power. Tunisians this time do not want to get fooled once more, but they remain divided on how things should be done.
While some opposition leaders call for the revision of the whole constitution, which they say was tailored to suit Ben Ali and his predecessor Lahbib Bourguiba, others accepted to talk to Ben Ali’s guards on forming a transitional government with the aim of getting the country out of this situation and to have "real reforms".

"We discussed the idea of a coalition government and the prime minister accepted our request to have a coalition government," Mustafa Ben Jaafar, leader of the Union of Freedom and Labour party, told Reuters news agency.

"There will be another meeting with the aim of getting the country out of this situation and to have real reforms. The results of these discussions will be announced tomorrow."
However, that seems optimistic.

Stumbling block

When talks get down to the details of who gets which post, and how many members of the old guard will sit at the cabinet table, things could become less congenial.

Another stumbling block is the opposition of some Tunisians to the two-month deadline for having a presidential election, which they consider as too short. That's not surprising. They have been harassed and marginalised for years and they want time to register on the consciousness of ordinary Tunisians.

And Ghannouchi himself, who is tasked to hammer out a compromise, is persona non grata in many Tunisians' eyes for being too closely aligned with the ousted president.

"We will be back on the streets, in Martyrs Square, to continue this civil disobedience until ... the regime is gone. The street has spoken," Fadhel Bel Taher, whose brother was one of dozens of people killed in the protests, said.

Ben Ali's departure is just the beginning for tension across the country to be defused. Tunisia is at the crossroad and the hard work is still ahead for Tunisians to close the chapter of the past and move into a prosperous future.

The Rest @ Al Jazeera

People across the region have watched enthralled as street unrest forced Ben Ali to flee the North African country he has ruled for 23 years -- an unprecedented spectacle in the Arab world, where authoritarian leaders can usually only be dislodged by army coup, assassination or their own mortality.

U.S. President Barack Obama urged free and fair elections in Tunisia, a call echoed by other Western leaders -- many of whom had turned a blind eye to Ben Ali's repressive style.
But Arab capitals have largely kept quiet, apparently stunned by the seismic explosion of protest in Tunisia.

"What will worry many governments in the region is that the crisis was spontaneous and not organized," said Henry Wilkinson of the Janusian Security Consultancy.

"Events in Tunisia have shown the risk of a pressure cooker effect: if you have a system of intense suppression without addressing the causes of discontent, a crack in that system can lead to an explosion."

A cautious statement from the Cairo-based Arab League called for Tunisia's "political forces, representatives of Tunisian society and officials to stand together" and keep the peace.
Saudi Arabia, a monarchy that gave Ben Ali refuge, expressed support for Tunisians as they overcome this "difficult stage."

In Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak has ruled for almost 30 years, the foreign ministry said it respected the choices of the Tunisian people and trusted their wisdom "in fixing the situation and avoiding the collapse of Tunisia into chaos."

Sudan said it welcomed the political change in Tunisia, using similar language about respecting the will of Tunisians.

The military overthrow of Sudan's president Jaafar Nimeiri in 1985 after a wave of popular protests is perhaps the closest parallel in modern Arab history to Ben Ali's ouster. Sudan's current president, Omar al-Bashir, took power in a 1989 coup.

In Iraq, where a coup backed by violent unrest toppled the Hashemite monarchy in 1958, the government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, sidestepped comment on the upheaval in Tunisia.
"This is an internal issue for Tunisian people. We do not interfere in the affairs of other countries and respect the choice of the people in the region," he said.

Iraq can boast a government that was formed, albeit with huge difficulty, after a genuine election, unlike those in most Arab countries, which offer more form than substance.


The reticence of Arab leaders over Tunisia may reflect their fears that, as North Africa analyst Camille Tawil argues, "what happened in Tunis proved that the people can topple a government in the Arab world by taking to the streets and demonstrating." But it does not necessarily mean they will stand by if their own people are inspired to replicate Tunisia's revolt.

"Other autocrats will not have the squeamishness about suppression with violence that the Tunisians showed," said Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Libya and Iran.

He said some, such as Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, "will conclude that they are still right to never give an inch, whether to Islamists or just reformers" and that regime survival is best served by resisting any Western pressure for change.

Arab rulers often justify repression by suggesting the alternative is to see radical Islamists seize power, but Tunisia offers little obvious support for this argument.

"Ben Ali's regime overplayed the Islamist card, trying to scare people about al Qaeda. People saw through it," said Saad Djebbar, an Algerian lawyer and political analyst.

"And as it turned out there were few beards in the street in the protests, even though, to be fair, many Tunisian Islamists prudently don't wear beards."

Arab leaders with more wealth at their disposal also have options to deal with dissent that the Tunisian leader lacked.

"Tunisia simply had fewer cards to play. The country doesn't have the recourse to hydrocarbon rent to make all problems go away," said North Africa analyst Geoff Porter, citing moves by Libya and Algeria to reduce food prices by forgoing tax revenue.

Even resource-poor countries such as Jordan have tried to forestall unrest by taking similar measures they can ill afford.

For Beirut-based commentator Rami Khouri, the message of the Tunisian insurrection was clear.
"It marks the end of acquiescence and docility among masses of ordinary Arab citizens who had remained remarkably complacent for decades in the face of the mounting power of Western-backed Arab security states and police- and army-based ruling regimes."

He said the grievances of Tunisian protesters were shared across the Arab world, except perhaps in small rich Gulf states.

The Rest @ Reuters

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