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Reform or restoration? Tunisia’s canary-in-the-coalmine indicators

Tunisia’s strongman President Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali has been deposed. But if his ruling party was kicked out the door, is it now coming back through the window?

There is a serious risk that the old order will cling to power and frustrate hopes for a genuinely democratic transition, writes Steven Heydemann ,Vice President at the US Institute for Peace and Special Adviser to USIP’s Muslim World Initiative.

He identifies the canary-in-the-coalmine indicators that will demonstrate whether the Jasmine Revolution will turn out to be a true turning point for Tunisia and the Arab world.

“Where now for Tunisia?” has become the question of the day following the dramatic overthrow of would-be “president for life” Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali.

If the initial responses to this unexpected political opening were understandably euphoric, including much talk of revolution and democratic change, the tone of analysts and observers has rapidly become more sober. Only a week after Ben Ali fled Tunisia in disgrace for exile in Saudi Arabia (a bitter pill indeed for a Francophone secularist), commentators are stressing the obstacles that Tunisia must overcome to transform a change of leadership into a meaningful, democratic change of regime.

Continuing protests, along with sporadic instances of looting and vigilante violence have added to the sense of uncertainty and trepidation that is emerging as developments unfold.

Monday’s announcement of a caretaker government that includes representatives from Ben Ali’s former ruling party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), but excludes Islamists and provides marginal representation for Tunisia’s Communist Party, was greeted by renewed protests and small-scale gun battles in the streets of the capital city, Tunis.

The restoration of political order and some clarity concerning the political rules that will guide the country in the reconstruction of its government are eagerly awaited, even as many citizens and opposition activists fear the premature closure of debate about Tunisia’s future and the design of its new political order, and view with increasing skepticism the prospects that the old regime will ever be held accountable for its decades of misrule.

The unease and skepticism of Tunisians are merited. The obstacles that confront a transition to democracy in Tunisia are many and deep.

Decades of harsh authoritarian rule crushed any semblance of autonomous civic life. Opposition political movements withered. Islamist movements were treated most harshly of all, experiencing terrible brutality and torture from the regime’s security services and secret police during the 1990s. (Ironically, the success of Ben Ali’s regime in repressing Islamist alternatives is one of the reasons that the US and the West more broadly find it a case of authoritarian breakdown in the Arab world that is safe for them to support.)

Trade unions, including the large and influential UGTT, which have played an important role in the events leading to Ben Ali’s overthrow are now seemingly allied with the opposition. Yet they are closely tied to the old order, the products of state corporatist strategies for containing and demobilizing any organized interests that might threaten the regime. Their support for today’s opposition notwithstanding, we should be cautious in viewing the union leadership as incipient democrats.

Despite Ben Ali’s departure, the RCD and the secret police remain a formidable presence. In these first days of post-Ben Ali Tunisia, they have shown no reticence about claiming a central place in a new political order.

Diaspora activists are now returning to Tunisia, although Rachid al-Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist al-Nahda party, is still prevented from entering the country. But whether the Diaspora leaders retain credibility with the public and will be able to play a positive role in the country’s reconstruction remains to be seen.

Fortunately, the military, whose refusal to fire on protestors paved the way for Ben Ali’s departure, seems inclined to remain the guardian of public order but unwilling to enter the political arena, at least for now.

Given the absence of an organized opposition, it would appear reasonable to provide some time for political actors to mobilize, for civil society to regain its footing, for mechanisms to be put in place to support popular inclusion in the process of rebuilding Tunisia’s politics.

Yet this is precisely what seems to have been rejected by Tunisia’s political leaders, anxious (for good reason) about the country’s descent into chaos and (no less likely) profoundly ambivalent about the virtues of real democracy. As a result, Tunisia’s leaders seem to be following the script of previous post-breakdown experiences in other regions, looking to secure an elite pact that will preserve in as large a measure as possible the prerogatives and privileges of Ben Ali’s ruling clique and their business cronies, while opening limited space for the inclusion of the “safe” opposition.

The current leaders have agreed an electoral timetable that virtually guarantees that opposition forces will be unable to compete fairly in the elections scheduled to take place in two months. They have made decisions about who will be represented and who will be excluded that will have long-term consequences for the shape of a ruling coalition and the future of politics. And they have adopted a public discourse that seeks to define the events of the past month as the product of economic grievances that can be remedied not by a transition to democracy, but by minor adjustments in Tunisian social policy.

Whether out of need, weakness, or simple pragmatism, these terms were initially accepted, if somewhat reluctantly, by the small number of opposition leaders who serve as the counterparts to the still-dominant RCD. As later events showed us, however, such accommodations may not hold.

Today’s refusal of opposition leaders to serve in a Cabinet still dominated by the RCD is a useful reminder that elite pacts have been eroded and overturned before by popular protests. But the process we’ve seen thus far sends important and not reassuring signals about the intentions of Tunisian leaders, the weakness of the opposition, the limits of the options available to the opposition to influence the course of events other than to exploit popular anger to enhance their leverage, even while there is intense pressure to get the country’s streets under control.

How long will the Army’s patience last?

Events are still too much in flux to draw conclusions, and it is certainly too early to write off the possibility of a democratic transition. Several indicators will bear watching over the coming weeks.

Will the opposition be able to form an effective coalition and begin to build the apparatus needed to compete in the upcoming elections? Will the ongoing negotiations over the composition of the caretaker government produce a meaningful role for the opposition, as opposed to vanity roles that provide window-dressing for what is likely to be a “neo-RCD”? Will Islamists respond to their exclusion from the caretaker government through negotiation, through efforts to secure a seat at the political table via elections, or through some other route? Will the caretaker government implement its recent decisions to lift restrictions on civil society? Will it support independent media and end the massive system of controls through which Ben Ali’s regime regulated communications technologies and media content?

There are other factors that will determine Tunisia’s trajectory, but these are some canary-in-the-coalmine indicators that will give us a good indication whether the Jasmine Revolution will turn out to be a true turning point for Tunisia and the Arab world.

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