It will take time to know how real these changes are, but the transitional Tunisian government has started off by making a number of significant concessions on political rights and civil liberties:
Tunisia unveiled Monday a transitional unity government in which the toppled president’s party holds on to key posts, and announced unprecedented freedoms and the release of all political prisoners.
Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi will remain as head of the transitional government, which will prepare for presidential and parliamentary elections after former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali resigned and fled on Friday.
The Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) retains the key foreign, interior, defence and finance ministries, even after hundreds demanded in protests in Tunis and other cities Monday that the party be abolished.
The new government also includes three leaders of the legal opposition as well as representatives of civil society. But it excludes banned political parties including the Communists and the Islamist Ennahdha party.
Ghannouchi said however that all political parties will be allowed, media will be freed and a lifting of restrictions on non-governmental organisation including Tunisia’s main human rights group, the Human Rights League.
“We announce total freedom of information,” Ghannouchi told reporters after announcing the cabinet. “We have decided to allow all associations to have normal activities without any interference on the part of the government.”
The new government also scrapped the information ministry — a widely hated organ responsible for official propaganda and media controls under Ben Ali’s 23 years in power.
However, some protesters and regime opponents believe the large role for Ben Ali’s ruling party in the new government represents too much continuity with the old order:
Police fired tear gas and water cannons and shot live rounds in the air in the capital earlier Monday to disperse hundreds of protesters demanding the abolishing of Ben Ali’s party.
“The revolution continues! RCD out!” they shouted.
“Bread and water and no RCD!” hundreds more shouted in Sidi Bouzid, where a December 17 self-immolation suicide in an anti-government protest unleashed the movement that forced Ben Ali to quit.
Update: Shadi Hamid and Issandr El Amrani discuss Tunisia on bloggingheads here. In the third segment, El Amrani made an observation about the “not taking sides” statement similar to the one I made here.