Tunisians woke Saturday morning to delirious joy at the advent of political liberty, but many worried about the simultaneous advent of social anarchy.
The fall of the government of dictator Zine al-Abedin Ben Ali after 23 years left behind a number of political and social vacuums. As for the security breach, it was gangs and Mafia that attempted to step into it. Friday afternoon and into the evening witnessed systematic looting in Tunis and in some other cities. Men in masks attacked civilians. Some Tunisians on the internet accused the police of going rogue. One tweeted, “many policemen have been arrested by the army, many gunshots around presidential palace.” Some tweets are calling the rogue police “counter-revolutionaries.”
Aljazeera says that cars with no license plates cruised the streets looking for opportunities for larceny. Helicopters dropped paratroopers in some towns to combat the looters. One Tunisian interviewed from a quarter of Tunis said, “There is complete disorder here. Families are afraid.” One eyewitness tweeted, “… what a night in Bourj Louzir, robbers still doing their things, and locals keep fighting them, at 3:45 am.” Some tweets report the formation of neighborhood ad hoc militias to patrol for safety. One warned that forming factious militias had been the downfall of Iraqis under US rule. (Iraq is thus a negative, not a positive, example for Tunisian oppositionists). The central train station and some supermarkets were set ablaze late Friday afternoon.
The interim president, Mohamed Ghannouchi, ordered the army on Friday afternoon to take control of the airport, and the military closed Tunisian air space. Aljazeera is reporting that members of the Trabelsi clan of Leila Ben Ali, the former first lady, were being arrested by security forces. Nepotism and corruption having to do with Madame Ben Ali had been a major theme in the popular protests.
A curfew was announced from six pm until six am.
As for the political crisis, Ghannouchi is seeking to form a government of national unity in preparation for the holding of new elections. He may reach out to opposition leader Najib Chebbi, who heads the Progressive Democratic Party. This moment is a dangerous one for Chebbi. If he joins the government and popular demonstrations bring it down, he will be seen not as an opposition leader but as a collaborator.
As it is, some Tunisians argue that the prime minister cannot take power (as Ghannouchi has) when the government has fallen. Only the speaker of parliament can do so, and then for only 45 days before there must be new elections. There were scattered demonstrations against Ghannouchi, seen as a Ben Ali ally and as too much a part of the old regime, around the country on Saturday morning, according to Aljazeera. Some tweets say that there will be a major demonstration against him in downtown Tunis on Saturday.
Opposition leader Munsif al-Marzouki demanded presidential and parliamentary elections “in the shortest time possible.” A Tunisian tweeted Saturday morning that al-Marzouki says he will be a candidate for president. Another said that he pledged that the revolution would continue and that Ghannouchi would be rejected.
Some observers are alleging that Wikileaks helped bring down the Tunisian government. A US embassy official in Tunis wrote in June, 2009, after meeting a member of the opposition,
‘ XXXXXXXXXXXX is extremely well respected and considered an upstanding member of the community. While we might doubt the veracity of some of the rumors that he shared with us, we have no reason to doubt his account of his conversation with President Ben Ali, in which he described the President as seeking a 50 percent stake in his private university. We routinely hear allegations of corruption, and such allegations are inherently difficult to prove. XXXXXXXXXXXX anecdote strikes us as credible. It is also significant in that it implicates Ben Ali himself, while so many other reported incidents of corruption involve his extended family.’
Demonstrators pointed to the cable this winter in denouncing Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali as corrupt, and the regime’s attempts to suppress the document led to crackdowns on the internet that further angered young people and the opposition. As Ben Ali fled the country on Friday, a protester tweeted, “I’m Tunisian, and i thank #Assange and #WikiLeaks for helping exposing the corruption in my country.” But another riposted, “the ppl who led the uprising in Tunisia knew nothing about #wikileaks. It was a hunger uprising – like French Revolution.” What can be said is that a similar spirit, of defiance of governmental authority, animates many of the revolutionaries in Tunisia as animates the Wikileaks volunteers.
Demonstrators in the southern city of Qabis invaded a government building and found and released documents of the police state.
But much will depend on which way the army goes, whether the officer corps decide they want more political openness or not. With all the hype about Wikileaks and Twitter, it should not be forgotten that most democratic transitions succeed only because the military allows them to or splits and becomes too divided to intervene.