By Claire Spencer

A week on from the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from the presidency of Tunisia, a semblance of calm appeared to be returning to Tunisian streets. Protests may continue over details of the transition, but the next few weeks will determine whether the 'Jasmine revolution' can prove that peaceful change is possible in North Africa and the Middle East.

Just over a month after the self-immolation of Muhammad Bouazzi unleashed street protests and then the deposition of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, the repercussions both internally and externally of this unprecedented series of events were already being widely discussed. Whether Tunisia will now be deemed a model for the region - or, for its autocracies, a dire warning of things to come - will depend greatly on how the transition currently underway in the country proceeds.

At first sight, the chances of Tunisians collectively affecting a peaceful move towards amore open political and economic system are good, or at least considerably better than the initial outlook that the ousted president was merely being replaced in a counter-coup by the army or the erstwhile presidential party, the Democratic and Constitutional Assembly (RCD in its French acronym).

The interim government, formed within three days of Ben Ali's departure from the ranks of the RCD, sought to distance itself from its previous incarnation by promising to liberate political prisoners and organise presidential and legislative elections according to the constitution within the next few months.

Under renewed pressure from the population, key figures in the interim line-up of ministers also resigned their membership of the RCD, though the incumbents of two key posts - Interior and Defence - remain contested. The first was still in post the previous week when security forces used live ammunition on the protesting crowds, resulting in eight deaths while he was in charge) and the second is alleged to have been deeply involved in seizures of land under taken on behalf of the wider Ben Ali family.

These allegations, along with an enquiry into the actions of security forces and others during the three weeks of protests, are due for review under the law over the coming months. Tunisia is well-endowed with qualified lawyers and judges, not all of whom have been tainted by too close an association with the Ben Ali regime. The question of redress, however, goes much deeper than the immediate fallout from the estimated one hundred deaths that occurred since mid-December 2010. Far more demanding will be the unravelling of claims likely to arise from a 23-year history of abuses by the former president and his close relatives and associates in the Trabelsi, Makeri and Mabrouk families.

This 'family' group - now in exile or under arrest in Tunisia - had majority stake-holdings in many of the largest companies and trading groups in Tunisia, together with land and property holdings which, in many cases, were acquired under duress. Establishing the trail of where force was complicit in some of these cases will employ corporate and property lawyers for some time to come. In the immediate term, it is the smooth functioning of key companies like Orange Tunisie, a subsidiary of Orange Mobile, with its 800,000 subscribers, that pose the biggest headaches. Orange was jointly owned by France-Telecom (49 percent) and a member of the Mabrouk family (51 percent) whose assets are now in the process of being frozen. Who will take over the majority shareholding of this and similar companies, and in what circumstances, is a question being asked by more than just the direct employees of the companies in question.

The involvement of French investors in a large part of the Tunisian economy is also likely to come under increasing scrutiny in coming weeks. The extent to which President Nicolas Sarkozy's government calculated that Ben Ali could hold on to power has already been widely discussed in the wake of the contested claim that the French Defence Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie proposed sending Ben Ali security reinforcements just before he fled. France has long been Tunisia's largest international partner and supporter, with Presidents Jacques Chirac and Sarkozy characterised even before the recent protests as indulging in 'une politique de tout va bien' (a policy that everything's fine) with regard to Ben Ali's behaviour. In an interesting twist, it now appears that the American State Department stole a march on the French by insisting that Ben Ali go when he did. This, of course, came in the wake of the WikiLeaks revelations that American officials had long doubted Ben Ali's ability to rein in the excesses of his in-laws.

The collective ability of Tunisians to adjust to their new reality, as well as limit the fall in investor confidence and a downturn in tourism, will really depend on a number of structural factors. The first is whether the abusive amendments to the constitution brought about by Ben Ali and the RCD can be corrected or reversed in a credible enough fashion to form the legal basis for the new state. In the absence of the National Assembly, currently suspended under the military-imposed state of emergency, the most logical approach to this would be to convene a constitutional council of untainted lawyers to create the legal basis for free and fair elections to take place. Current limitations on the eligibility of candidates for the presidency will need amending as the sixty-day limit for presidential elections to be held approaches, but this can most immediately be addressed under a revised electoral law.

The next question is what will happen to the spoilers that undoubtedly exist in the midst of popular support for greater openness and transparency in Tunisia's affairs. The Ben Ali state deployed more policemen per capita than anywhere else in the region, along with extensive secret intelligence and surveillance agencies. As more becomes publically known in coming weeks about the intricacies of this system, those who stand to lose most from being implicated may well try to disrupt the smooth progress of reform and redress. Reports of militias patrolling the streets have subsided, but the sheer size of the combined security apparatus also raises questions of how soon, and to what kind of police force, the army will eventually have to cede its current law and order role.

A final question is whether the Jasmine revolution will really herald a new generation of representative parties, associations and leaders capable of representing the views of the broader population in national politics. The RCD, like so many of the pre-1989 Communist parties of east and central Europe, had cells and tentacles into the lowest levels of society. As seems likely, when these are disbanded, what kind of local and national organisations will take their place? So far, the General Union of Tunisian Workers has been largely on the side of the angels, with three of their appointed ministers being forced to resign from the interim government at the instigation of their wider membership.

If the kind of changes that Tunisians are now hoping for are actually going to take place, it will be imperative that they assume civic responsibilities as well as demand change from above. They are blessed with large and qualified diaspora communities in Europe and North America, which European and American government would be well-advised to draw on to channel targeted external support and assistance. Having tolerated Ben Ali for so long, this is the least the outside world can now do.

(Claire Spencer is Head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House.)


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