Many Tunisians are asking whether ousted president Ben Ali’s old guard can be trusted with free and fair elections
There was little sign of jubilation in Tunisia today when the prime minister announced his new “unity” government. Even though several opposition figures were included, Tunisians who had spent the past few weeks battling to oust the president, Ben Ali, expressed disappointment. There were too many old faces in the “new” regime, especially in key ministries such as defence, interior, finance and foreign affairs.
The prime minister himself, 69-year-old Mohamed Ghannouchi, is a Ben Ali loyalist of long standing, having served since 1999. In Tunisia, he became known as “Monsieur Oui Oui” for always saying yes to the president.
To many ordinary Tunisians, these are worrying signs. In the words of a trade unionist quoted on Twitter: “Tunisia has got rid of the dictator but hasn’t got rid of the dictatorship yet.”
Muhammad Mishrgi, interviewed by Reuters on the streets of the capital, echoed that view: “We do not trust this government … It’s as if Ben Ali’s system is still there. It’s for that reason that the demonstrations are continuing. We want a new state with new people.”
But another Tunis resident, Muhammad Bouzayin, had lower expectations. “These people participated in the system of Ben Ali. It’s true, the people do not want them in the new government, but we cannot have a complete change. We need to go towards democracy step by step,” he said.
Opposition parties represented in the new government include the Progressive Democratic party, the Ettajdid party and the Union of Freedom and Labour. Of these, only Ettajdid has seats in parliament – two out of 214.
There were also reports that Slim Amamou, a prominent blogger who was imprisoned by Ben Ali, has been appointed as a junior minister for youth and sport. In another move calculated to appease the protesters, Ghannouchi said his government was committed to releasing all political prisoners and would also investigate anyone suspected of corruption.
Even so, it is unclear how many Tunisians will be prepared to accept the new government as a step towards change rather than an attempt by the old guard to retrench itself.
Although the departure of Ben Ali and his family has removed a major grievance, there are worries that the system he created is still largely in place. But nobody really knows how Ben Ali’s yes men will behave now that there is no Ben Ali to say yes to.
In any case, the new government has very little time to do anything, either for good or ill. Assuming the constitution is followed, a presidential election will be held less than two months from now – and whoever becomes president will be able to appoint another government.
This means the Ghannouchi government announced today will only have two real tasks: to restore order as quickly as possible and to prepare for the election. Given the country’s long history of manipulated elections, the main – and perhaps only – real question for Tunisians is whether they can trust the new government to ensure that the next president is chosen freely and fairly.