Tunisia ministers quit ruling party, political prisoners freed

Can members of the party that served ousted Tunisian President Zine El Abdine Ben Ali hang on?

Tunisia's ruling party no longer rules, at least not in name. The remaining cabinet members from ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) left the party today, with interim President Fouad Mebazaa promising a "total break" from the past, Al Jazeera reports.

Speaking on Tunisian TV, Mr. Mebazaa promised an amnesty for all political prisoners, that the Tunisian state would no longer be synonymous with the RCD, the creation of an independent judiciary and free speech in a country that, until now, has run one of the most furiously successful censorship regimes in the Middle East.

Mebazaa, like interim Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, is a life-long servant of the RCD, and the distancing from a party that has ruthlessly crushed all challeneges to its rule since independence (under various guises; the party was known as the Neo Destour in the first years of independence, renamed to Destourian Socliast Party in the 1960s and rebranded again as the RCD when Ben Ali took power in 1987) is an attempt to put the genie of public protest back in the bottle.

In his address, he described the popular uprising that has transfixed the region as "a revolution of dignity and liberty." But that revolution is far from complete. And the string from decades of humiliation, the legacy of living in a country where criticism of the government could only be whispered out of the side of your mouth, is now driving a gusher of public outrage that could still sweep away Mebazaa and Ghannouchi.

For now the most powerful positions in government are still held by men who loyally served the RCD and whose positions were preserved by the use of torture and intimidation by the state security apparatus, largely run out of the Interior Ministry. The business of unwinding the party's control of government, weeding out the most corrupt of the judges and policemen, and delivering on Mebazaa's promise will be a long and difficult one.

The good news is that Tunisia, unlike most countries in the region, has a well-educated middle class and capable people that can contribute to the construction of new institutions. But it's hard to imagine the former regime's middle and upper management simply abdicating.

A few dozen members of Ben Ali's family, particularly members of his wife Laila's hated Trabelsi clan, are in custody on corruption charges and state-controlled TV has promised justice for their crimes (Issandr El Amrani wrote a wonderful portrait of Laila who "meddled in the affairs of the country's elite like Joan Collins once did in the soap opera Dynasty" a few days ago.) A bank controlled by Mohamed Sakher El Materi, married to one of Laila's daughters, was seized by the government on Wednesday.

But will that go far enough to appease the Tunisian public? That's got to be the foremost worry for the remaining regime figures -- that tossing the Ben Alis and Trabelsis to the wolves will not be enough and that they too could end up facing the loss of their fortunes and liberty.

How angry are Tunisians? Monitor correspondent Kristen Chick had a nice atmospheric piece from Sidi Bouzid, ground zero for Tunisia's uprising, yesterday. That was where Mohamed Bouazizi, fed up with corruption and feeling economically strangled, set himself on fire and the country alight in December. The moment she arrived she encountered a gusher of public grievances:

They all talked at once, loudly, in Arabic, English, and French, telling me about the miserable conditions that had led to the uprising. It was as if they had been silent for so long, enduring injustice and hardship without acknowledgment, that now that the dam had broken, and there was no stopping the rush of words.

There are no jobs,” said one man. “We all have university degrees, and we sit in cafes all day. The government ignored us.” Another jutted in, shouting over the first. “If you want a job here, you have to pay the Trabelsi family,” he said, referring to the family of Ben Ali’s wife, Laila Trabelsi, who engenders a special hatred in most Tunisians. A woman plucked insistently at my sleeve. “See this?” she said, pointing to her hijab. “Ben Ali made this illegal in Tunis.”

I was quickly overwhelmed by the crush of people. I’ve never before in my work experienced such a phenomenon, where crowds appeared every time I opened my notebook. And it happened each time I tried to interview someone on the street in Sidi Bouzid.

This thing isn't over.

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