Tunisia diary: Ammar's move? (2)

Things are still very much up in the air at the moment for the transitional government, especially if two Reuters reports from earlier today are to believed. It's pretty evident public opinion is split between those who want a smooth transition and restoration of order and those who want a clean break with the former regime, most notably the six ministers from the RCD, some of whom were in positions to be either in the loop or directly involved in the corruption the Ben Alis and Trabelsis (and others), such as the minister of finance. But even with those who prioritize a smooth transition and return to normalcy (and I would say, judging from the sheer number of people back on the streets doing their work today — remember a lot of people have been unable to earn for the last two weeks — that is the majority) are not happy with the RCD still not being disbanded. What seems to be happening now is some sort of compromise / negotiation.

Two developments today sent the signal that things may be fast moving. 

First, the idea that the government could be replaced by a "committee of wise men" that would essentially act as a constitutional assembly of sorts, creating the legal environment in which a government might be formed and fair elections might be held: 

Jan 24 (Reuters) - Tunisian politicians are negotiating the creation of a committee of "wise men" to replace the interim government and "protect the revolution", political sources said on Monday.

They said the committee could include respected opposition politician Ahmed Mestiri.

Mestiri is a respected lawyer and former Bourguibist who played a key role in the history of post-independence Tunisia but later fell out of favor with the regime (Wikipedia has a decent entry.) But he's 85, and the other names floating about are also in their 80s and even 90s. This would then be a committee of wise men to set the outline of the new regime, not run day-to-day affairs. So who would run those? I've heard people suggest that the entire government could be replaced by a handful of technocrats who keep things running, but I'm not so sure.

Second, the fact that Rachid Ammar made a speech to the hundreds of protestors who had come from the center of the country to protest against the interim government. 

Jan 24 (Reuters) - The Tunisian army general who refused to back president Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali's crackdown on protesters warned on Monday that a political vacuum could bring back dictatorship and vowed to protect the revolution.

"Our revolution is your revolution. The revolution of the youth could be lost and could be exploited by those who call for a vacuum," General Rashid Ammar told crowds outside the prime minister's office, where protesters have demanded the fall of the interim government. "The army will protect the revolution."

Ammar's decision to withdraw support from Ben Ali is widely regarded as a turning point that eventually forced him to leave the country on Jan. 14 after weeks of popular protests.

This sends the message that a) no one in the interim government has the credibility to take charge of this kind of communication and b) that Ammar is the current strongman, the only person with credibility to address and calm angry crowds. It's a short hop from that to the idea that he should be the head of the transitional government, although at least for appearances' sake it might be better to remain in the background. But it remains a real possibility, considering that today he appears as the only person with the credibility to block criticism — there simply is no other politician that would have the same instant authority, since he is seen as the man who deposed Ben Ali.

Things might move very fast from here. There's a good chance Ghannouchi will no longer be PM tomorrow (with perhaps no immediate clarity on who else will remain), particularly since he's been clumsy with his communication, notably his mention last week that he had spoken to Ben Ali on the phone, which really freaked out a lot of people.

There are other questions raised today. I mentioned earlier the teachers' strike, which is a way for the UGTT (trade union) to flex its muscles. You've also had strikes elsewhere — in big retail notably — that are making industrialists nervous. You are seeing the beginning of demands for wage increases (which traditionally have been negotiated every three years in a government-brokered process). For now, with the absence of Islamists from the scene and much of the RCD in hiding, trade unionists are emerging as the most organized political force, with a national network to rely on with ties to various leftist parties (notably the banned PCOT, or communists). The national leadership of the UGTT is said to have been for decades in bed with the RCD, and fairly quietist. But the regional leadership and rank-and-file is a different mix of people, and they are putting pressure on the leadership — which is the rational explanation for why UGTT leaders joined the interim government and the next day left it. The UGTT has jumped into the political vacuum and weakness of the legal opposition, but it's not really structured to be a political party and was for a long time a para-statal network. This ambiguity makes some uncomfortable.

One possibility is that Ammar is going ahead of UGTT / popular expectations by taking up the role of defender of the revolution — thus responding to one of the main fears of the opposition and at least part of the UGTT, which is that the RCD will crawl back in place. I'm not sure what the link is right now, but I am putting today's speech and the revolutionary rhetoric alongside last night's arrest of Hannibal TV director Larbi Nasra (who has apparently now been released) and the bizarre charges against him — that he was conspiring against the revolution and committed "high treason." Remember that no one, not even Ben Ali or his relatives currently under house arrests, have been charged with treason or anything else. Of course that could simply be a big gaffe by Najib Chebbi, the minister who mentioned the high treason charges. The current government, again, really seems to have a PR problem — the wisest one so far, indeed, appears to be Slim Amamou whose Twitter feed satisfies a natural curiosity but has been gaffe-free (most probably he's not in the loop.)

The other significant news today is a visit by Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman to Tunis. I'll write more about this later, but I think the US has played a major role in the events of the last two weeks — and US involvement at this senior level now suggests Washington is helping broker this transition, and will be a key player in it for some time to come. Yesterday Clinton yet again reiterated US support for free elections:

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi yesterday to express continued support for the people of Tunisia in their path to a more democratic society. Secretary Clinton conveyed that the United States is encouraged by indications that the Interim Government is trying to be inclusive and ensure that the many segments of Tunisian society will have a voice.

The United States supports this effort, and the Secretary noted the Prime Minister's call for open, free, and credible elections in six months. She also commended the Interim Government's first, but significant steps to begin to investigate corruption and past abuses, and to work toward political reform. Specifically, the Secretary noted the government's establishment of three investigatory working committees to deal with these issues. Finally, the Secretary reiterated that the United States stands ready to assist the Tunisian people to meet the challenges ahead, and assured the Prime Minister that the United States will stand with them as they chart a new course for their country.

I have no privileged information, but it the US right now have a clear priority: that stability is maintained, and that to ensure this at this moment, the transition has to combine the right mix of legitimacy and order to satisfy the Tunisian people's demands. Of course other factors play against this, notably concerns about longer term economic policy. Those questions may play out later, and for now there's a need to outflank the main political agitator on the scene right now, which appears to be the far left and the trade unionists.

I'll leave it at that for now. Do read Christopher Alexander's FP piece today which provides good background. I'm reading his book right now and am finding it very informative.

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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.