Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of Africa

Tunisia: Recent Developments and Policy Issues *

Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of Africa

Tunisia: Recent Developments and Policy Issues *

Article excerpt

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS: EXIT OF PRESIDENT BEN ALI

Tunisia has undergone major political upheaval in recent weeks. It was previously considered a stable, albeit highly authoritarian, country that cultivated close ties with Western powers, particularly France and the European Union. On January 14, President Zine el-Abidine ben Ali fled the country after several weeks of increasingly violent protests.1 The protests initially seemed to stem from discontent related to high unemployment, but quickly spiraled into an unprecedented popular challenge to Ben Ali's authoritarian regime. These events have sparked international concern over stability in a region associated with secure, autocratic regimes, and some analysts have speculated that anti-government movements in neighboring countries, such as Egypt and Algeria, could be strengthened by Tunisia's example.

Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, who has been in office since 1999, initially assumed power in Ben Ali's absence, but on January 15, Ghannouchi turned over the role of acting president to the speaker of parliament, Fouad Mebazaa, in line with constitutional prerogatives.2 On January 17, Ghannouchi announced the formation of a -unity" cabinet, which included members of civil society as well as three leaders of officially sanctioned opposition parties. These were Ahmed Najib el Chebbi of the Progressive Democratic Party, the largest of the legal opposition parties, who was named minister for regional development; Ahmed Brahim of the Ettajdid Movement, a leftist party, who was appointed minister for higher education and scientific research; and Mustafa Ben Jaafar, leader of the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties party (and a medical doctor), who was named health minister. Key positions, such as prime minister and the ministers of defense, interior, and foreign affairs, were retained by ruling party figures, and the internal stability of the government appeared to be threatened by discontent among some opposition supporters who accused their leaders of being overly conciliatory to elements of the former regime. Members of banned political parties were not invited to participate in the government. The two most significant are the Islamist movement Ennahda, led by Rashid Ghannouchi (no relation to the prime minister), and the leftist Congress for the Republic (CPR) party, led by Moncef Marzouki. Both leaders, who have been living in exile, have announced plans to return to Tunisia.

Authorities have promised political reforms, including freedom of expression, the release of political prisoners, investigations into corruption under the former regime, and the lifting of restrictions on the Tunisian League for Human Rights. They have also pledged elections within 60 days. However, it is difficult to predict whether these promises will be upheld, and whether the coming weeks will see an end to the uprising or further chaos. Looting, shootings, and violent confrontations between protesters, security forces, and gunmen in civilian clothes persisted in Tunis and other urban centers as of January 18. The protesters appear to lack a central leader and are not necessarily aligned with an identifiable political or ideological movement.

Ben Ali's unexpected departure has led analysts to examine the role and cohesion of Tunisia's security forces, amid recent indications of internal divisions. Some analysts have speculated that the military-historically seen as relatively apolitical-may have played a key role in bringing an end to Ben Ali's presidency; such speculation has centered, in particular, around General Rachid Ammar, the military chief of staff, who is reported to have refused orders to open fire on demonstrators.3 On January 16, the government announced arrest warrants for the former head of presidential security, Ali Seriati, and several of his -accomplices," for allegedly plotting against the state.4 International media reports have referenced continuing violence by -militias" seen as allied to the former president, whose relationship to formal security structures remains unclear. …

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