The key players in Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution
Tunisia's 'Jasmine Revolution' is still under way, with fighting in the capital today. Here are some of the key players driving events.
The enraged Tunisians who took to the streets in December in revulsion at their corrupt, autocratic regime achieved their primary goal: The removal from power of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But what sort of new order will emerge in the North African country, or whether it will be much different from the old one, has not yet been determined.
Here's a list of some of the key individuals and actors who will shape the future:
Former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali: The ousted president is now in Saudi Arabia, after the plane he fled on appeared to have been denied permission to land in Malta and Paris, France being Tunisia's former ruler. Born in 1937, he followed a well-trod path to power for post-colonial rulers, joining the anti-French Neo Destour movement while in high school. He also received military training at St. Cyr, France's most prestigious military school. After Tunisia gained independence in 1956, he joined the nation's military, with a specialization in internal security and intelligence. In 1985, he was named Interior minister, making him chief enforcer and suppressor of internal dissent for Tunisia's first president, Habib Bourguiba. In 1987, he led a sweeping crackdown against Islamists for Bourguiba, and was named prime minister. Ben Ali soon turned on Bourguiba, and when doctors declared Bourguiba mentally unfit to rule, stepped in as president.
Though it's hard to imagine Ben Ali returning to power, he amassed vast wealth and still has many loyalists inside the country. Monitor Correspondent Kristen Chick reports from Tunis that elements of the police appear still loyal to Ben Ali. There were fierce clashes between the Army, which is backing the forces of change for the moment, and members of Ben Ali's Presidential Guard, who were driven from the presidential palace Sunday.
The corruption of the regime was widely noted. As the US Embassy in Tunis put it in a cable in 2008 (released by WikiLeaks): "According to Transparency International's annual survey and Embassy contacts' observations, corruption in Tunisia is getting worse. Whether it's cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali's family is rumored to covet it and reportedly gets what it wants."
Acting President Fouad Mebazaa: Parliamentary Speaker Mebazaa was named acting president on Saturday. A long-time member of Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Party (RCD) and a key supporter of the regime until recent events, he has promised fast elections and the creation of an interim government of "national unity" that will include members of Tunisia's political opposition, which have long been frozen out of meaningful political participation. Whether the opposition are in fact given a meaningful voice and Mr. Mebazaa shepherds a revision of electoral and political laws will demonstrate whether his promises are sincere.
Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi: Mr. Ghannouchi, another Ben Ali loyalist, at least until recently, has been described in the leaked US embassy cables as a technocrat and generally more respected by the Tunisian public than his former boss, since he's generally seen as less corrupt. Writing at Foreign Policy, Blake Hounshell agrees that he's seen as more honest, but says it isn't clear if he's an acceptable figure to Tunisians, given his close association with the ousted president.
"Ghannouchi is not necessarily any more popular than Ben Ali, though he's not nearly as tainted by the lurid tales of corruption and excess that so damaged the ruling family. But Tunisians certainly don't respect the prime minister; they call him 'Mr. Oui Oui' because he's always saying yes to Ben Ali."
Ghannouchi was "acting president" for a few hours himself on Saturday, before Mebazaa was chosen as the more constitutionally acceptable option.
The Security Forces: The December suicide of Mohammed Bouazizi, an unemployed and despairing young man, was the spark; the mass public protests and riots were the fire; but it was the military's decision not stand between Ben Ali and the conflagration reaching out for him that was decisive on Saturday. Whether the generals really want fundamental change in Tunisia is an open question, and there were signs of heavy-handed behavior against protesters and journalists on Sunday.
Steven Cook at the Council on Foreign Relations had a good snap analysis of the military's role on Friday. "The military's decision to end Ben Ali's rule reflects their desire to save Tunisia from consuming itself in the convulsions of demonstrations, protests, and violence that were sure to continue had the president stayed on," he wrote. "Whether the military's leaders are democrats is not the issue; rather, their concerns seem to be that that graft, corruption, and the practices of one of the worst police states in the Middle East proved to be a threat to social cohesion and stability."
The role of the police is another matter, with indications out of Tunis that some commanders still side with Ben Ali, and persistent rumors that some of the looting and gang behavior in recent days were actually run by cops or intelligence operatives out of uniform, seeking to sow discord.
Outside powers: The country with the most influence on Tunisia is former colonial power France. The Elysée Palace of President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement Saturday that "France has taken the necessary steps to ensure suspicious financial movements concerning Tunisian assets in France are blocked administratively," an apparent allusion to the fortune Ben Ali and family members are said to have squirreled away in Paris, a city that first lady Leila Ben Ali regularly visited on the presidential trip for lavish shopping trips. Sarkozy also expressed support for democracy in Tunisia.
Traditionally, France has been a strong supporter and ally of Ben Ali (unlike the US, which could be classed as friendly to Tunisia but had little in the way of strategic interests or investment there). Global Voices has a nice roundup of French press reaction to Ben Ali's ouster, with translation. France was largely silent about events unfolding in Tunisia in recent weeks, and French Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie expressed steadfast support for Ben Ali as recently as this Tuesday, saying France prepared to provide the "know-how of the French police to the Tunisian police" to put down the unrest.