Tunisia’s new government of national unity appears to be fracturing, raising fresh questions about prospects for a stable democratic transition.
The new president, Fouad Mebazza, and prime minister Muhammad Ghannouchi today resigned from the former ruling party in an effort to placate critics.
Their gesture followed the resignation of several ministers earlier today in protest against the Constitutional Democratic Rally’s retention of the key power ministries in the new cabinet. Senior members of the RCD held on to the defense, interior, finance and foreign portfolios.
The president and prime minister will remain in their offices and urged that RCD colleagues holding the key strategic ministries also remain in post in order to guarantee stability.
“We need them in this phase,” Ghannouchi told the France-Europe-1 network. “Give us a chance so we can put in place this ambitious program of reform,” he said, insisting that the ministers had “clean hands in addition to great competence”.
Protesters again took to the streets to demand that the former ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally party be purged from government. But some opposition groups fear that would damage prospects for a stable democratic transition.
Three of the ministers who resigned today were trade unionists.
Tunisia’s main trade union federation, which played a vital role in the protests that ousted President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, today refused to recognize the new government. The General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) announced the decision following an extraordinary meeting near Tunis.
While some opposition groups argue that a coalition government offers the stability and experience needed to manage the transition to free and fair elections, others insist that the RCD’s presence betrays the Jasmine revolution and gives RCD veterans an opportunity to engineer a comeback.
“For the first time in 55 years, the monopoly of this regime is broken,” said Nejib Chebbi, the leader of the left-leaning opposition Progressive Democratic Party and the new minister of regional development.
The largest legal opposition under the old regime, the PDP is now being targeted by protesters, who marched on the party HQ today, demanding that it withdraw from the unity government.
But Chebbi appears unmoved, giving voice to the pragmatist strands of the opposition who believe Tunisia is on the cusp of a genuine transition.
“The ruling party is forced to share the power. This is a guarantee the agenda of reform will be carried forward,” he said.
The new government has announced a set of wide-ranging reforms, including the release of political prisoners, the end of media censorship and the lifting of curbs on non-governmental organizations, including the Tunisian Human Rights Defense League.
Three new commissions will assess proposals for political reform, investigate corruption and bribery, and examine rights abuses during the recent unrest.
Veteran opposition figure Moncef Marzouki dismissed the new government as a sham when he returned from exile today.
“The revolution must continue!” he told supporters greeting his arrival at Tunis airport.
“I will do everything possible to ensure a real peaceful and democratic transition in this country,” he said, but ruled out any accommodation with the RCD, insisting on “a real coalition government … and real elections.”
Pragmatists among the democratic opposition fear that continuing unrest and instability may create a popular demand for order and stability that will sap support for a democratic transition and could even play into the hands of those seeking to restore the old regime.
“If Ben Ali’s domestic supporters are given cause to fear that a transition to democracy will provoke chaos, they may try to manipulate elections in their favor,” writes Dan Brumberg.
The fact that the current parliament, in which Ben Ali’s RCD holds 152 of 189 seats, has the constitutionally mandated task of nominating candidates for the next presidential elections “provides just such an opening for political sabotage,” he notes.
Tunisian democracy advocates are legitimately concerned that RCD elements will try to undermine prospects for a genuine democratic transition, citing the rush to presidential elections within 45 to 60 days.
“If you take the whole thing seriously,” says Samir Taeibh, a Tunis University law professor, “it’s not possible in that time period. You need at least six months.”
The parties need time to find candidates, organize and campaign, while the current law requires that every party secures the signatures of at least 30 MPs before it can contest the election.
“With the current parliamentary majorities, that could be a stumbling block for every one of the opposition parties,” he says.
The opposition’s dilemma is that the largely spontaneous and dramatically short-lived wave of unrest that ended President Ben Ali’s autocratic rule was focused on his removal and, unlike more protracted insurgencies, failed to nurture credible leaders.
The problem is compounded by the previous regime’s success in repressing political opposition and stifling civil society which has left a void in place of potential alternative figures of authority.
“The ‘rush’ into elections may be premature in a society with weak political parties and until recently a heavily shackled civil society,” says a analyst.
“Existing civil society and opposition are still fledgling,” writes Larbi Sadiki, a Middle East expert at the UK’s University of Exeter. “The endeavor to transform the system swiftly must be checked by the risk of total political vacuum.”
The prospect of “durable substantive democratization” will be undermined by a blanket witch-hunt or purge of RCD officials that robs the government of scarce expertise and authority, he cautions.
Previously suppressed democratic actors need time to revive and to partner with those technocratic and other political forces “that worked for Ben Ali but are not necessarily ‘Ben Ali-ist’.”
Tunisian democrats are well aware that regime change does not necessarily entail democratization.
“Some authoritarian systems offer up the ouster of a president in the hopes of keeping the rest of the repressive system in place,” democracy assistance expert Tom Carothers has cautioned. ” They promise elections that will be held but then quietly shut off the oxygen to the political transition process once the international attention fades.”
Such a possibility should add urgency to resolving the strategic divisions within the opposition and to designing and delivering the resources, counsel, training and other democracy assistance programs that have proven to be vital investments in consolidating previous transitions.