Analysis: Tunisian “revolution” could leave government vacuum

By Andrew Hammond

TUNIS | Tue Jan 25, 2011 10:55am EST

(Reuters) – At a news conference in Tunis this week, a young journalist pressed leftist opposition leader Moncef Marzouki to outline his party’s policies.

“We will put forward our program but for now we want to continue this revolution and protect it from those who want to bring it down,” he said. “All politicians should put their personal ambitions on hold until we complete the revolution.”

The journalist tried to press the colorful firebrand, recently returned from Paris, but Marzouki wasn’t having any of it. He stuck to his revolutionary guns: “Again, when the time comes for it, we’ll lay out our social and political plan in detail. This revolution surprised us as much as the rest.”

It was a telling moment.

Ruler of 23-years Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in a popular rising this month, but the North African country of 10 million has remained in tumult with days of protests against an interim government containing many former loyalists.

Now there is pressure to purge the political scene of men associated with Ben Ali’s RCD party and the corruption and repression of his police state. But it has provoked debate over who has the qualifications and experience to manage government.

State television has suddenly opened up to a host of opposition figures, former exiles, intellectuals and rights activists who are little known to many Tunisians. Islamist group Ennahda remains an unknown force because of an official ban.

“There is a shortage of experienced politicians in the country, given the history Tunisia has had,” said Mohammed El-Katiri of the Eurasia Group.

While the word “revolution” is being bandied about by groups across the social and political spectrum, it seems to mean different things to different people.

Marzouki talks about “the revolutionary movement” as if this was Russia in 1917, but army chief Rashid Ammar told crowds of demonstrators on Monday that “the army will protect the revolution,” in an effort to persuade them to stand down.

BASE FOR FUTURE?

“We have to have a base if we are to build for the future,” said Saleh Attia, a columnist from Assabah newspaper. “If we start from nothing, we’ll have people who have no experience of managing a state. The opposition does not have experience.”

The interim government is led by Mohamed Ghannouchi, a technocrat who served from 1990 as Ben Ali’s finance minister then prime minister. Other ancient regime figures remain as ministers and many could face questioning over corruption in the cleansing of the system now underway.

There are reports that the cabinet — which is charged with caretaking before free elections — will be replaced soon and a “committee of wise men” including judges, opposition figures, post-independence era veterans and civil society activists appointed to oversee political reforms.

It is not clear if the RCD party — a reconfiguration of the Neo-Destour party of independence leader Habib Bourguiba — will survive the current period of political ferment at all.

Opposition groups want it dissolved, but analysts like El-Katiri say it is likely new RCD faces will emerge and find their way into either the cabinet or supervisory council.

Research house Oxford Analytica expressed concern on Tuesday over the ability of political forces systematically repressed by the authoritarian regime, which had wide Arab and Western backing, to steer the country through the difficult times.

“The opposition parties, national associations and returning political exiles lack experience in balancing popular obligations with political negotiations. After 23 years of being repressed and manipulated, they will have to learn quickly,” it said in a report.

WINNING OVER YOUTH

Thought to have one of the most highly educated populations in the region, Tunisia suffered a significant brain drain via globalization under Ben Ali’s watch and the tightening grip of his family on the country’s political and economic life.

Mounir Khelifa, an academic who worked in the Ministry of Higher Education, said there are now 800,000 to 1 million Tunisians abroad, but he doubted many would want to return.

“They tended to be highly qualified in information technology and communications. I don’t think many would come back for the sake of helping the Tunisian economy,” he said.

The bigger challenge facing the country’s leaders, whether familiar faces remain or not, would be appealing to the youth who led the uprising that brought Ben Ali down, he said — people who felt alienated and marginalized by the ruling elite.

Ben Ali’s final speech one day before he fled, in which he appealed to the rebelling nation with his arm outstretched saying “I get you, I get you,” illustrated the disconnect.

“He was pitiful. People of my generation were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But the younger generation said ‘who is this man?’,” Khelifa said. “They are people between 18 and 30 who are highly educated but also disenfranchised.”

In one nod to these realities, the interim cabinet includes a junior minister for Scientific Research who is a prominent blogger, Slim Amamou, or slim404 on social website Twitter.

This week he posted pictures of his new government office but stated he wouldn’t stay in the post longer than the caretaker cabinet’s mandated six months before new elections.

Amamou also sought to tone down the rhetoric. “The revolution has been over since Ben Ali was ousted. What we’re witnessing now is democracy in action,” he tweeted.

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