Where Tunisia is now: exhilarating limbo

Ben Ali has fallen. An Arab dictator of 24 years has turned out to be removable — not by a relative, former ally or military chief, but by a popular insurrection. This is historic first for the entire region and I will come back to it tomorrow.

In the meantime, though, we should not assume that Tunisia has become an instant democracy. The announcement today that Prime Minister Ghanouchi was assuming the presidency has yet to be accepted. Rioting and looting are continuing in the streets of major Tunisian cities, sometimes targeting the homes and businesses of regime cronies, but also of ordinary citizens. Some suspect police desertors to be looting. The situation is chaotic and the army is showing signs of wanting to impose order.

With no clear leadership with the moral authority to get people to go back to their homes, it may be days before the situation resolves itself. What interim president Ghanouchi does tomorrow in his meeting with the opposition — whose very definition will be controversial, notably over whether En-Nahda's Islamists could become part of an interim coalition government — will be crucial. Right now, there does not seem to be any indication that Tunisians are accepting any government as legitimate. Ghanouchi will have to either move quickly to build a credible alliance (here the international community may have a role in confering legitimacy) or step aside for someone who can.

The question of what role there should be for longtime regime cronies such as Mr Ghanouchi is crucial. On the one hand he and others like Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane represent known quantities. They can be seen as managers that might not play a role in future governments. Yet public opinion is now divided on this, weary that if they remain one of the main grievances against the Ben Ali regime — its cronyism and corruption — will not be addressed. Because the Ben Ali network was in business with everyone, this is difficult: few are entirely innocent, especially among the officials who have the capacity to run government in the short-term.

Another alternative, particularly if violence endures, is for the army to take over. It already seems to be moving to impose order, and may enjoy some of the moral authority to end the violence if the pictures of people kissing soldiers on the streets are anything to go by. But that would also alienate some of the protest movement.

The next 24 hours may be as crucial as the preceding 24. What Tunisia needs is a transitional government able to make the streets safe and inspire confidence that the country will be embarking on a genuine democratic transition, not just trading one dictator for another. 

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.