Parliament speaker assumes power a day after Zine El Abidine Ben Ali flees the country amid a mass uprising.
|Prime minister Mohammed Ghannouchi (L) has promised to bring in opposition leaders [AFP]|
Tunisia is in a state of flux following the ousting of its long-standing president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
After 23 years in office, Ben Ali fled the country amid a mass uprising, giving way to leadership changes that came at a dizzying speed.
In the 24 hours after Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, Tunisia saw two different leaders. First, Ben Ali’s longtime ally, prime minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, stepped in to assume power. Observers questioned whether the move was legal, since the constitution calls for the speaker of parliament to be next in line. The country’s highest authority on the issue, the Constituional Court, quickly ruled that Fouad Mebazaa, the speaker, should be made president and given 60 days to organise new elections.
The Council declared that Ben Ali’s departure was permanent, and Mebazaa was sworn in on Saturday under Article 57 of the constitution, which stipulates that when the post of the president falls vacant “due to his demise, resignation or total incapacitation … the speaker of the parliament … shall immediately undertake the presidential duties on temporary basis for not less than 45 days; and not more than 60 days.”
The piece of legislation states that it is not permissible during the transitional presidential period to amend the constitution or impeach the government. During this period, a new president shall be elected for a term of five years. The newly elected president may dissolve the parliament, and call for premature parliamentary election (in accordance with the provisions of Paragraph Second of Chapter 63).
The country’s constitution provides the only framework for the interim government and the opposition to negotiate, but it is more suited to leaders personally chosen by the former president.
Mebazaa promised to create a unity government that could include the long-ignored opposition, but it is not clear how far the 77-year-old Mebazaa, who has been part of Tunisia’s ruling class for decades, would truly go to work with the opposition.
On Monday, Ghannouchi announced that the new government would retain six ministers from Ben Ali’s administration, including those for defence, foreign affairs, interior, and finance. Three members of the opposition were also given positions.
That didn’t seem to satisfy many Tunisians, though: Hundreds of protesters took to the streets of Tunis, the capital, to demand that Ben Ali’s Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party be kept out of power.
Though Ghannouchi promised political and economic reforms and the release of all political prisoners, ordinary Tunisians in the capital remained sceptical about the new coalition’s promises of reform.
It also remains unclear who will emerge as the country’s top political leaders, since Ben Ali utterly dominated politics, placing allies in power and sending opponents into jail or exile.
Everything looked to have been choreographed to ensure strict compliance with the constitution.
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But observing the legal niceties was important, as it sent an important signal to Tunisians that the rules still remain.
Back in 1987, Ben Ali, who was then prime minister, became president in much the same way that Ghannouchi did on Friday. Instead of stepping aside, he held on to power. This time, Tunisians don’t want to get fooled again, but they remain divided on how things should be done.
While some opposition leaders call for the revision of the whole constitution, which they say was tailored to suit Ben Ali and his predecessor Lahbib Bourguiba, others signaled their willingness to form a transitional government with the aim of getting the country out of its crisis situation and to have “real reforms.”
‘We will be back in the streets’
Another stumbling block is the opposition of some Tunisians to the two-month deadline for having a presidential election, which they consider too short. That’s not surprising. They have been harassed and marginalised for years, and they want time to register on the consciousness of ordinary Tunisians.
And Ghannouchi himself, who is tasked to hammer out a compromise, is persona non grata in many Tunisians’ eyes for being too closely aligned with the ousted president.
“We will be back on the streets, in Martyrs Square, to continue this civil disobedience until … the regime is gone. The street has spoken,” said Fadhel Bel Taher, whose brother was one of dozens of people killed in the protests.
Ben Ali’s departure is just the beginning for tension across the country to be defused. Tunisia is at the crossroad and the hard work is still ahead for Tunisians to close the chapter of the past and move into a prosperous future.