Tunisia's prime minister promised to announce a new coalition government today (17 January), hoping to maintain the momentum of political progress following the 'jasmine revolution' that took place on Friday and the ousting of the country's authoritarian ruler.
Tunisian special forces fought a gun battle with the ousted president's security force near the presidential palace on Sunday, a military source said, two days after Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted after more than 23 years as president.
Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia following a month of protests over poverty, jobs and repression that claimed scores of lives.
Parliament speaker Fouad Mebazza, sworn in as interim president, has asked Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi to form a government of national unity and constitutional authorities said a presidential election should be held within 60 days.
While there have been relatively positive noises from the talks so far, the negotiations may run into trouble when they get down to the detail of which parties get which cabinet posts and how many of the old guard are included.
Ahmed Ibrahim, head of the opposition Ettajdid party, said the main thing now was to stop disorder.
"We are in agreement on several principles concerning the new government. We will continue to discuss. My message is to say 'no' to Gaddafi: we do not want to go backwards," he said, in reference to a speech by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi who said Tunisians were too hasty to get rid of Ben Ali.
Opposition parties want assurances that presidential elections will be free, that they will have enough time to campaign, that the country will move towards greater democracy and that the power of the ruling RCD party will be loosened.
Two opposition parties have also already said the two-month deadline for holding elections is too soon.
Opposition leader Najib Chebbi said after talks with Ghannouchi on Saturday that elections could be held under international supervision within six or seven months.
Beirut-based commentator Rami Khouri said it could take a while for Tunisia's opposition of secularists, leftists and Islamists to coalesce because there was no unified movement.
"The process will probably take weeks at least and then you have to sort out the logistics of the interim government, the unity cabinet […] you have never had an Arab country where the people can suddenly start from scratch," he told Reuters.
Arab rulers worry
Tunisia's political earthquake has shattered the cosy world of entrenched Arab rulers and destroyed the image of their military-backed regimes as immune to popular discontent and grievances.
Analysts, opposition figures and ordinary people say the Tunisian revolt may prove contagious. Like Tunisians, many Arabs are frustrated by soaring prices, poverty, high unemployment, a bulging population and systems of rule that ignore their voices.
These leaders, they say, can no longer just ignore the plight of their poor or rely on subduing their restive populations with brute force without retribution.
"The developments in Tunisia are like an earthquake. Arab rulers will try to loosen up their regimes by giving some freedom, providing jobs and education and other things. Then they will try to become repressive again," said Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi opposition activist based in Riyadh.
"The question will be if people have learned their lessons and will let them get away it."
Ordinary Arabs may be less willing now to accept their governments' old political tactics. Stunned by TV footage from Tunis, many are wondering if the same could happen at home. "Tyrants don't last forever. This is a clear message to every dictatorial regime that rules by iron and fire," said a commentator on a discussion forum, UAE Hewar.
"The Tunisians are real men. They took matters into their own hands and had the courage to control their own fate and said 'no' to oppression," said a 55-year-old Egyptian veteran of the 1973 war with Israel, who asked not to be named.
"The Egyptian people suffer just like the Tunisians, and this encourages all Egyptians to do the same."
Social networks: new weapon
Social networking sites in the region have lit up with calls for action. Twitter and Facebook have changed the rules for Arab governments who could once spoon feed news to their people.
"People cannot be bought forever with economic goodies in an age of information flowing freely. Today, people can make comparisons," said Jasim Husain, an opposition member of Bahrain's parliament.
In Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak has been in power for three decades, one Facebook page was entitled "Project to prepare a plane for each president" and several pages called on the 82-year-old leader to start packing his bags.
"Enough is enough. We are fed up and we will not let our country slip from our hands any longer," said one Facebook user. Another called on Tunisia's exiled president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, to "tell Mubarak a plane is also waiting for him".
"Make it one plane to fly around and pick them all up," said Facebook user Maha al-Gamal.
North African states stretching from Morocco to Egypt, plus Jordan and Syria, are among the countries seen most susceptible to upheaval by restive populations. Arab states in the oil-producing Gulf have more resources to buy off citizens.
"I think the Gulf states are a little bit more secure than some of the other states that have been mentioned, such as Egypt and Jordan and Algeria. So I don't see it spreading to here," said Theodore Karasik, analyst at Dubai-based group INEGMA.
(EurActiv with Reuters.)
Before the news of Ben Ali leaving the country, Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle made the following statement:
"We are following with the utmost attention the events in Tunisia. We want to express our support and recognition to the Tunisian people and their democratic aspirations, which should be achieved in a peaceful way.
"In this regard, we urge all parties to show restraint and remain calm in order to avoid further casualties and violence.
Dialogue is key. We reiterate our engagement with Tunisia and its people and our willingness to help find lasting democratic solutions to the ongoing crisis."
After the publication of this article, Ashton sent out another statement:
"In this critical moment, we reaffirm the EU's solidarity with Tunisia and its people. We condemn, once again, the violent repression of the demonstrations and reiterate our sympathy to the families and friends of the victims."
She urged the Tunisian authorities "to act responsibly, preserve peace, show restraint and avoid further violence and casualties" and condemned all actions aiming to further destabilise the security situation.
Her statement continued: "The message from the Tunisian people is loud and clear: Tunisia has reached a point of no-return. The EU will stand side by side with Tunisians as they pursue their peaceful and democratic aspirations. Tunisia wants to be a stable democracy, in full respect of fundamental rights and freedoms. It wants free and fair, inclusive elections. We will support Tunisia in their endeavours to achieve this."
She pledged "immediate assistance to prepare and organise the electoral process and lasting support to a genuine democratic transition".
The Greens/European Free Alliance group criticised the EU's support for the former dictatorship and called on the EU to now support truly democratic opposition forces.
Greens/EFA co-president Daniel Cohn-Bendit said: "There is a real opportunity to support the creation of a real democracy in North Africa and to show that democracy is possible in a Muslim country."
He continued: "The European Parliament has again distinguished itself through its silence, with the EPP and socialist groups refusing a Green demand for an EP resolution."
EU Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy Commissioner Stefan Füle told a European Parliament session in Strasbourg that "Tunisia wants to be a stable democracy, in full respect of fundamental rights and freedoms. It wants free and fair, inclusive elections. They want to write a new page in their history. And we want to support them in this endeavour".
According to him, "the EU has never ceased to remind Tunisia of its international obligations in the field of human rights and fundamental freedoms".
He said that "with its strong middle class, high level of education, closeness to Europe and overall moderation, Tunisia is well placed to take the leap towards democracy that people have now asked for with such force and courage" and "the EU also has a strong interest in a democratic, prosperous and stable Tunisia".
European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek opened the Parliament session in Strasbourg with a minute's silence for the victims of the revolution and said he wanted "to pay tribute to the courage and determination of the Tunisian people".
"Europeans are particularly sensitive to the legitimate calls of the people: calls for social justice, equal opportunities, freedom of expression, democratic participation and true pluralism in shaping a political destiny," he continued.
Buzek said he expected the release of those who were arbitrarily arrested, independent inquiries into the allegations of corruption and violence, free and fair elections and the setting-up of a government that represents all Tunisians.
Spanish MEP José Ignacio Salafranca (European People's Party) warned against taking advantage of the power vacuum to adopt extremist political positions "that will kidnap the process".
To help democracy in Tunisia "is in our own interest as it is only through democracy that we can guarantee long-term stability," he stated.
Salafranca also called on the European Commission to reflect on the framework of its Neighbourhood Policy. "We must ask ourselves if helping to maintain the political status quo in some countries around us that are not full democracies contributes to our stability," as it seems evident that the downfall of Ben Ali does not represent in itself "enough incentive" for a democratic transition in Tunisia.
French MEP Marie-Christine Vergiat, GUE/NGL Coordinator on the Subcommittee on Human Rights and a member of the Maghreb delegation of the European Parliament, criticised the fact that "it took more than 50 deaths for the EU to venture a timid statement in which it called for restraint in the use of force without jeopardising the sacrosanct EU-Tunisia partnership, and without condemning the violence until Saturday, Mr Füle".
"The least we can say is that you had hardly heard of the Tunisian regime since your appointment," Vergiat said.
She continued: "The European Union must follow the electoral process, and ensure the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry to get to the bottom of what happened (the violence and corruption)."
Ben Ali, 74, has been widely credited with ensuring political stability and strong economic growth but critics accuse him of riding roughshod over human rights and democratic values, allegations he denies.
Ben Ali came to power in November 1987, six weeks after becoming prime minister, when he arranged for doctors to declare president-for-life and founder of modern Tunisia Habib Bourguiba senile and unfit to rule.
He was elected unopposed for a first five-year mandate in 1989 and re-elected, as sole candidate again, in 1994.
In 1999, Ben Ali won a new five-year mandate with 99.4 percent of the vote, despite the introduction of multi-party politics. The figure raised eyebrows in the West and human rights groups called the election a sham.
A referendum in 2002 on a new constitution allowing Ben Ali to extend his rule theoretically until 2014 was approved by more than 99 percent of voters. He won 94.4 percent of the vote in the 2004 presidential election. In 2009 he was re-elected to a fifth term with 89.62 percent of the vote.
The government has said repeatedly it is committed to increasing civil liberties. However, clashes broke out last month around the country as students, professionals and youths protested against a shortage of jobs and restrictions on public freedoms.
Several dozen people have been killed in almost four weeks of protests against unemployment and for better living conditions.
Sunni Islam is followed by over 99 percent of Tunisia’s population. There are also small Jewish and Catholic groups.
Tourism is a major source of foreign exchange for Tunisia, representing over 11 percent of hard currency receipts, as well as an important sector for employment. In 2009, 6.9 million tourists visited Tunisia, largely from Europe and North Africa.
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