Tunisia: what's next?



According to a statement of Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had decided on Friday afternoon to dismiss his government and to call for early legislative elections in six months.

A few minutes later the “State of emergency” was proclaimed to “protect Tunisian people and properties”.

It is worth mentioning that earlier in the day, the ambassador of Tunisia to the UNESCO, Mezri Haddad, had presented his resignation.

This came as large protests have been staged throughout Tunis during the day demanding the immediate resignation of the president, following the apparent return of calm in the morning. Thousands of protesters outside the Ministry of the Interior have been refusing to disperse unless the president stepped down. Reportedly, the resumption of violence came as several members of the opposition called on rioters to continue their mobilization and to occupy the building of the ministry.

Army tanks were deployed at the scene, while anti-riot police fired tear gas to disperse the crowds. According to witnesses, live fire shots were also heard in the area, while other army tanks had been as well positioned outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in front of the building of the National Radio and Television. Moreover, other protesters allegedly tried to occupy the building of the Central Bank. There have been no reports so far on any casualties during these latest incidents.

The unprecedented mobilization in Tunis came after President Ben Ali announced on Thursday night - during a nationally-televised speech - that he would not run for another term in 2014 and ordered the security forces not to use fire arms against demonstrators. Despite this, several media reported about 13 people having been killed and around 50 others injured in overnight clashes between protesters and the security forces in Tunis. Moreover, three deaths and six people injured were reported during violence in Kram, a town close to the capital.

The fact that the riots, which have been mostly limited to provincial towns for three weeks, reached the Tunisian capital this week seems to indicate that the middle-class is joining the global contestation. If verified, this element could be extremely damaging for the regime and for President Ben Ali himself as the middle-class is his “social basis” and the guarantor for Tunisia political stability.  If the merchants, the businessmen and the civil servants don’t support anymore the regime, it means that this one is condemned.

This evolution means also that the current protestation wave echoes a deep and general reject of the power by all the sectors of the Tunisian society. At the very beginning, the rioters were young unemployed men asking for “jobs”, after a week or more, the government being unable to “calm” the street, they were joined by intellectual demanding freedom of speech and information. Now, the middle class is joining the party, very likely to protest the high level of corruption that was tolerated for too long by President Ben Ali and is deeply rooted in the “first circle” surrounding the power.

Having multiplying those last days strong (and sometimes very conflicting) statements to face the escalation in the troubles, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has now very few option. Actually, he has only three:

  • to resign;
  • to install immediately a new government in which the legal opposition would have a significant number of (important) seats;
  • to use the force to break the contestation.

The fact that “state of emergency” was proclaimed seems to indicate that he has chosen the third one. Actually, he had no other choice: before anything positive could be done, the order must be re-established in the streets. If not, extremism will prevail or others, in the army for instance, will be tempted by a “coup” to overthrow the President.   

But the crisis could not be resolved only by the use of force. President Ben Ali was, in the eighties and the beginning of the nineties, the “providential man” protecting Tunisian society against chaos and Islamism. Now, he will have to prove he has kept the power – and the will – to implement real and deep reforms which will allow Tunisia to meet the challenges of the global economy and protect it against more troubles, which could only benefit the extremists. This could be the last thing he will do for his country.

But the time is short and, maybe, it is already too late.

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