Tunisia: Government of National Unity or Tanks in the Street?

The video on Aljazeera shows Tunis as a war zone on Saturday afternoon, with burned out vehicles in the streets and heavy black smoke floating over the city. Security forces loyal to deposed president Zine al-Abidin Ben Ali are alleged to be engaging in sabotage and looting, and to be coming into conflict with the regular army.

Ben Wedeman of CNN heroically managed to get to Tunis only to find a military lockdown. But it may be that the Ben Ali gangs have thrown a fright into the population and improved the image of the regular army taking them on, so that people angry with the government aren’t so sad to see tanks in the streets– if it means they aren’t about to be pillaged and assaulted by the former security police and other criminal elements.

Tunisia’s Constitutional Council appears to have reviewed Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi’s claim to be president and rejected it. Ghannouchi made the claim Friday on the grounds that president Ben Ali was ‘incapacitated’, in which case the prime minister takes over. But this interpretation of the situation would imply that Ben Ali is still president, a non-starter for the Tunisian public.

So the Constitutional Council instead chose as interim president Fouad Mebazza, who had been speaker of the lower house of parliament. Mebazza, from an old Tunisian aristocratic family, had been in the cabinet of Tunisia’s founding father, Habib Bourguiba, who led the country to independence from France. The holder (or in this case former holder) of that post is supposed to succeed in case the post of president is vacated, according to article 57 of the Tunisian constitution. This constitutional gesture was a declaration by the Constitutional Council that Ben Ali is well and truly gone and out of office.

But then Mebazza turned around and asked Mohamed Ghannouchi to form a government of national unity in preparation for elections in 2 months. The problem is that so far all of these measures have been taken by prominent members of the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), against which the popular uprising was directed. Will the people trust that one-party state to preside over its own liquidation?

There is a controversy about the phrase ‘government of national unity.’ Ghannouchi is said to have consulted a handful of regime-recognized parties about forming an interim government. These parties are considered to only pretend to be in the opposition. He also had conversations with leaders of two genuinely oppositional parties, the Progressive Democratic Party and the Democratic Forum for Labor and Liberties. (Don’t you wish the US had opposition parties with names like that?)

The Tunisian Communist Communist Workers Party of Hamma Hammami, the Congress for the Republic, and an-Nahda (Awakening– the Muslim fundamentalist party) have not so far been contacted. A spokesman for the Congress for the Republic said on Aljazeera that the opposition parties demanded an inclusive transitional government, not an Establishment, phony ‘government of national unity.’ The leaders of the real opposition parties are all announcing their return to the country.

Tunisian feminists are suggesting on Twitter that women greet the fundamentalist leader Rashid Ghanoushi (not connected to the prime minister) in bikinis at the airport, and many secular activists are afraid that the Nahda fundamentalists will usurp their revolution for reactionary purposes– accusing it of not even having played a significant role in the overthrow of Ben Ali. They also resent the focus on Nahda spokesmen at Aljazeera, which they say has a bias toward fundamentalist political movements.

8 Responses

  1. 1. correction:
    Tunisian Communist Communist Workers Party of Hamma Hammoudi,
    ==> Tunisian Communist Workers Party of Hamma HAMMAMI,

    2. Tunisian feminists are suggesting on Twitter that women greet the fundamentalist leader Rashid Ghanoushi
    ==> Tunisian feminists are guilty of “collaboration” with the former regime, they were pampered, got stipends, and NEVER spoke against oppression unlike “pro-democracy & freedom” other civil organizations
    OF ALL THE PEOPLE (AND SPEAKING AS A WOMAN), TUNISIAN FEMINISTS HAVE BROUGHT SHAME ON THE FREE WOMEN OF TUNISIA!!! AND THEY HAVE PLAYED NO ROLE IN THE REVOLUTION

    3. “many secular activists are afraid that the Nahda fundamentalists will usurp their revolution for reactionary purposes– accusing it of not even having played a significant role in the overthrow of Ben Ali.”
    FALSE for 2 reasons:
    a. Islamists who have been exiled against their will (for fear of torture and killing) abroad, have always been active in voicing their opposition while abroad, just like other opposition members who have been exiled and not islamist (so please no double standards)
    b. The majority of prisoners of conscience who have been undergoing savage torture in the Ben Ali’s dungeons have been islamists or even mild sympathizers, or further than that, just innocent folks who have been suspected because they wear a beard or go to pray in the mosque too often for the taste of the dictatorship that did not respect the most basic right of freedom of religion.
    As a matter of fact, Ben Ali eradicated islamists, and practically all of them are either in prison, being tortured, or exiled abroad.

  2. Prof. Juan Cole:

    I like your phrase “only pretend to be in the opposition” in regard to Tunisian “opposition parties. Reminds of the largest country in North American, between Canada and Mexico. Though Obama talked a good line and voted against Bush Jr/Baby Bush’s war in Iraq in 2003,when he recame president he went along and expanded the war in Afghanistan, continued the war in Iraq, and is starting new wars in Pakistan and Yemen and in various regions of Africa.

    Both Reps and Dems are for the war party, for war all day and all year, every day and every year. Because it pays to well and keeps the dissident elements and the poor frightened sedated and entertained. As the late, great Chalmers Johnson kept reminding us starting the BLOWBACK in 1999…Keep up the good work my friend.

    Dan Berman, Davis California, working on a 2nd edition of my 1978 book DEATH ON THE JOB, in my “retirement.”

  3. Prof. Juan Cole:

    I like your phrase “only pretend to be in the opposition” in regard to Tunisian “opposition parties. Reminds of the largest country in North American, between Canada and Mexico. Though Obama talked a good line and voted against Bush Jr/Baby Bush’s war in Iraq in 2003,when he became president he went along and expanded the war in Afghanistan, continued the war in Iraq, and is starting new wars in Pakistan and Yemen and in various regions of Africa.

    Both Reps and Dems are for the war party, for war all day and all year, every day and every year. Because it pays so well and keeps the dissident elements and the poor frightened sedated and entertained. As the late, great Chalmers Johnson kept reminding us starting with BLOWBACK in 1999….What an inspiration Chalmers has been; doing his most courageous work beginning in his late 60s, work which was almost a U-Turn from his “mainstream” careers “as a spearcarrier for Empire…..”

    Keep up the good work my friend. I check you out almost every day and tell others to do so.

    Dan Berman,Ph.D. Davis, California

  4. Yes Dan. And how about those english speaking wikileak
    news sources that can’t seem to print anything anymore?

    Are they just “pretending to” support the truth? It is
    starting to look like freedom of the press is confined
    to Norway.

    Dan Davenport,MD Longview, Washington

  5. Prof Cole, What do you know about Rashid Ghanoushi? Or even RED_HAWK that seems to be well informed. A very quick search on Twitter shows people saying “we didn’t replace Ben Ali for Islamists.”

    I ask because I’ve read only a couple of his pieces and I wouldn’t characterize him as a fundamentalist or even Islamist. From what I’ve read he’s anti-violence, pro-democracy. But like I said, I’ve only read very little by him (or about him) and we’re living in a time that if you’re a Muslim and involved in politics you’re quickly labeled a fundamentalist or an Islamist.

    • AB
      I agree with you, in fact, in my comment, I did not get into the particular details of Rashed Ghannouchi, I only commented on the claims that islamists did not contribute to the revolution. The definition of Islamist has been abused, the Tunisian version of islamist is actually very mild and pro-west and peaceful, most similar to Turkey’s ruling party now.
      One more thing AB: to base any sort of conclusion based on a sample of “twitter” tweets is a completely unfounded way to do sound unbiased statistical sampling.
      Twitter is used by a select subset of users in Tunisia, with mostly modern, pro-left ideas, and I doubt they are pro-islamist or even tolerant of islam.

  6. The Tunisian masses are all very religious, from their perspective if these urban types remove Ben Ali, it’s just one subsection of the ruling class replacing another.

Comments are closed.