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Tunisian President Resigns After Protests
January 28, 2011
By: Randi Zung
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On January 14, longtime Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali resigned from office following weeks of ongoing street demonstrations that called for his removal.  According to BBC News, this massive wave of unrest in the capital city of Tunis was sparked by the December 18, 2010 self-immolation of 26-year old fruit vendor Mohammed Bouazizi.  Bouazizi was reported to have set himself ablaze in front of a government building after the government seized his fruit cart on the basis that he was operating without a permit.  Recently, the high rates of unemployment – especially among young educated graduates – had led to heightened tensions between the government and its citizens.  Bouazizi’s act of protest and subsequent death on January 4, 2011 were the catalyst for what the Western media has now dubbed Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution.

Addressing the situation in Tunisia, in a statement United States (US) President Barack Obama said that he “[applauded] the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people.”  Urging calm and deploring the use of violence against protestors, Obama called on the Tunisian government to respect human rights and to let the protesters voice their opinions.  Similarly, in a separate statement, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the Tunisian government to restore order in the country and to address the peoples’ concerns over “lack of civil liberties and economic opportunities.”

Following Ben Ali’s resignation, on January 16, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that interim President Fouad Mebazza had started working with Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi to form a coalition government.  The coalition government is scheduled to include opposition groups, including democratic forces.  Western leaders – including French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel – have since called on the interim government to hold free and fair elections.

The New York Times reported that the interim government, in an effort to reinstate calm, later appeared on television and announced plans to end the country’s repressive grip on the media, release all political prisoners, recognize previously banned opposition parties, and to hold internationally monitored elections within six months.  Additionally, interior minister Ahmed Friaa stated that the interim government would “punish all the criminals who have terrorized us” and added, “Yes to democracy, yes to freedom and no to chaos.”  The interim government announced that the unrest cost the country more than $2 billion and had resulted in 78 protester fatalities.  Despite the interim government’s pledge to work towards implementing democratic reforms, some protesters later took to the streets to call for the complete elimination of Ben Ali’s former party. 

A day after the coalition government was announced, BBC News reported that four ministers had withdrawn from the interim government.  The ministers, all members of opposition parties, were reported to have withdrawn over the inclusion of ministers from Ben Ali’s former government.  Riot police were later deployed to break up the fresh demonstrations of protesters who also called for Ben Ali’s allies to be excluded from the new government.  Ahmed al-Haji, a student protestor, stated, “The new government is a sham. It's an insult to the revolution that claimed lives and blood.”

On January 18, the New York Times reported that the new interim government’s willingness to welcome back opposition parties could also signal the return of the Islamist party, which was previously banned under Ben Ali’s administration.  Islamist party founder Rached Ghannouchi, who is currently in exile after being banned from the country, said that his party and other opposition groups in the country were committed to working towards a society with freedom of expression, freedom of association and women’s rights.

The recent events in Tunisia are said to have reverberated throughout the North African region with at least six other acts of self-immolations in the last month.  Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that Arab opposition politicians believe that the events in Tunisia have set a precedent for combating autocratic governments.  Kuwaiti opposition lawmaker Ahmad al-Saadun identified the events in Tunisia as a “lesson for all the peoples of the region.”

Following calls for the elimination of Ben Ali’s former ruling party, on January 20, the New York Times reported that all of Ben Ali’s former ministers had resigned from the new interim government and that the Ben Ali’s party had disbanded.  Commenting on the mass resignation, BBC News reported that Minister of State Zouheir M'Dhaffar said, “I am stepping down for the higher interests of the country in this delicate situation to try to bring the country out of crisis and ensure a democratic transition.”  Prime Minister Ghannouchi and interim President Mebazaa also resigned from Ben Ali’s former ruling party to try to distance themselves from the former autocratic government.

The interim government will now be tasked with determining a date for fresh parliamentary and presidential elections.  According to the Tunisian constitution, a parliamentary election must be held in the next six months and a presidential election must be held within the next two months.  On Twitter, US Department of State spokesman PJ Crowley stated that the US would help Tunisia transition to democracy.

On January 23, the New York Times reported that the interim government shut down, Hannibal TV, the country’s most popular private television network and arrested the network’s owner on the charge of committing “grand treason.”  According to a government statement released by the state news agency, the network was shut down for trying “to abort the youth’s revolution, spread confusion, incite strife and broadcast false information likely to create a constitutional vacuum and destabilize the country in order to take it into a spiral of violence that aims to restore the dictatorship of the former president.”  Hannibal TV spokeman Lotfi Sallemi called the network’s sudden shutdown a violation of press freedom.  Although the network reopened a day later – after an intervention from an opposition member of the interim government – this action has led critics to question the interim government’s commitment to upholding civil liberties.

On January 23, Secretary Clinton called on Prime Minister Ghannouchi and the interim government to continue to allow the people of Tunisia to express their support for democratic reform.  Clinton also commended the interim government for taking its first steps toward implementing reform and reaffirmed continued US support for the Tunisian people as the county undergoes an unprecedented period of transition and upheaval. 

On January 25, the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs hosted an event to discuss the recent events in Tunisia.  Sponsored by the Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) and the Institute for Middle East Studies, "Tunisia: Protests and Prospects for Change" was paneled by Christopher Alexander of Davidson College, John P. Entelis of Fordham University, and was moderated by Marc Lynch of George Washington University. 

Alexander opened by stating that the current situation in Tunisia is not a coup or a democratic transition, and stressed the need for the interim government to establish widespread foundational and institutional reforms.  Speaking on the country’s upcoming elections Alexander said that without reform Tunisia would be in danger of backsliding into an authoritarian regime that would be legitimated by a skewed election.  Commenting on the events in Tunisia, Entelis stated that he was surprised Tunisia stayed an authoritarian regime for as long as it did because of the country’s high level of development.  During his presentation, Entelis also highlighted the unique roles of the Tunisian military and youth demonstrators and asserted that the Tunisia uprising is the most important political event in the Arab world in the last 50 years.

When asked if the events in Tunisia could influence uprisings throughout the Arab world, Lynch stated that potential uprisings in other countries would not follow a similar model.  Citing differing economic, political, and societal factors, Lynch said that mass protests in the Arab world are not new and have been happening, unnoticed, by the Western media.  Additionally, Lynch stated that Arab regimes are crumbling because their ability to assert and maintain control is shrinking.  The session was concluded by Lynch stating that the United States government needs to play a role in helping to restore order and reform in Tunisia.

On January 27, Prime Minister Ghannouchi announced a major reshuffle in the interim government.  In a television address, BBC News reported that Ghannouchi had dismissed 12 ministers.  The ousted ministers were all former Ben Ali allies.  It was reported that the reshuffle was welcomed by Tunisia’s trade union federation, the Union Generale des Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT).  The UGTT was previously cited by Democracy Digest as the major political force pushing for the ouster of the former ruling party from the new unity government. 

Despite being credited with helping to topple the Ben Ali government, the UGTT insists that it is only there to function as a voice for the Tunisian people.  Other opposition groups have criticized the UGTT’s strict call for all members of the Ben Ali government to be purged, on the basis that the purge will lead to an inexperienced and unstable new government.  Regardless of opposition groups’ concerns, the autonomous UGTT has played a significant role in sustaining and expanding the call for reform in Tunisia.

On January 28, in a policy brief from the Project of Middle East Democracy (POMED), Amine Ghali – Program Director at the Tunis-based Al Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center – stated that Tunisia could potentially become the first Arab nation to have stable, democratic government.  In the policy brief, Ghali proposed several recommendations that the US could undertake in order to help support democratic reform in Tunisia.  Ghali’s recommendations included providing technical support for the new government, encouraging European allies to help foster democratic reforms through economic incentives, and supporting the creation of a “vibrant pluralistic system” composed of various civil society organizations, political parties, and institutions. Noting that Tunisia still has a ways to go before it can declare itself a democracy, Ghali said that with support from the international community, Tunisia could become a “powerful example” of reform in the region.

In a statement, the International Steering Committee of the Community of Democracies (ISC/CD) pledged support for the people of Tunisia in their effort to install democracy in their country.  In the statement, the ISC/CD proposed several recommendations to the Tunisian people – including: advocating for democracy through non-violent means, developing open channels of communication between democracy activists and the new government, promoting respect for freedom or association and expression, assisting in developing strong institutions that adhere to democratic operating principles, holding free and fair elections, and ensuring the operation of the independent media.  In conclusion, the ISC/CD also called on the governments of CD member countries to offer assistance to the government of Tunisia in its transition to democracy by establishing partnerships in the region and through providing various forms of assistance and support.

To read the full ISC/CD statement on Tunisia, please see:
ISC/CD Statement on Tunisia

Sources:

BBC News - Tunisia security forces shoot dead protester

White House - Statement by the President on Events in Tunisia

US Department of State – Secretary Clinton Calls Tunisian Foreign Minister

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty - Gun Battles Break Out, With New Tunisian Leadership To Form Government

BBC News - Tunisia ministers quit government as protests resume

New York Times – Resignations Put Tunisia’s Unity Government on the Brink

Democracy Digest – The Jasmine Revolution’s democratic prospect: too early to say?

BBC News – Tunisia's interim government holds first meeting

New York Times – Tunisian Leaders Quit Ruling Party

New York Times - Government of Tunisia Shuts Down Popular TV Channel

Radio Free Europe - Police Use Teargas On Protesters In Tunis

US Department of State - Secretary Clinton's Call to Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi

Democracy Digest – Tunisian unions eclipsing parties as democratizing force?

BBC News - Tunisia announces major cabinet reshuffle after protest

Project on Middle East Democracy – Tunisia’s Moment of Opportunity

 

 

 

 

 

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