The unrest in Tunisia has continued. Ghannouchi’s attempt at a “soft coup” has been rejected, and the speaker of the parliament, Fouad Mebazaa, is currently acting as interim president. He has reportedly authorized negotiations for the formation of a national unity government. The BBC has its live-blog up again for today. Now that Ghannouchi is out and the “temporary” absence of Ben Ali has become officially a permanent departure, presidential elections are required to be held within 60 days.
As Nathan Brown explains on Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel, holding elections so quickly is a boon to the allies of the old regime, as they will have to take place according to the constitutional structure set down by Ben Ali:
But Article 57 — if that is what is used — is a very mixed blessing for the opposition. The problems start when you read the fine print. The presidential elections have to be held according to the current constitutional provisions, and those allow only the Potemkin parliament (and a few other officials) the ability to nominate candidates. And while the acting president is serving, no constitutional amendments are allowed. In other words, invocation of Article 57 kicks into gear a process that was carefully designed for Ben Ali. It is designed for a figure handpicked by current top leaders, not for a truly open election.
Marc Lynch discusses the role of new media, including satellite television, and adds these observations:
I’d point to one other aspect of this which often gets overlooked. Al-Jazeera and the new media ecosystem did not only spread information — they facilitated the framing of the events and a robust public debate about their meaning. Events do not speak for themselves. For them to have political meaning they need to be interpreted, placed into a particular context and imbued with significance. Arabs collectively understood these events quite quickly as part of a broader Arab narrative of reform and popular protest —the “al-Jazeera narrative” of an Arab public challenging authoritarian Arab regimes and U.S. foreign policy alike. Events in Tunisia had meaning for Jordan, for Lebanon, for Yemen, for Egypt because they were framed and understood within this collective Arab narrative. From al-Jazeera’s talk shows to internet forums to the cafes where people talked them out face to face, Tunisia became common focal point for the Arab political debate and identity.
Michael Koplow explains why Islamism is not a significant factor in the Tunisian revolt:
Unlike in Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, and most other secular Arab autocracies, the main challenge to the Tunisian regime has not come from Islamist opposition but from secular intellectuals, lawyers, and trade unionists. The absence of a strong Islamist presence is the result of an aggressive attempt by successive Tunisian regimes, dating back over a half-century, to eliminate Islamists from public life. Ben Ali enthusiastically took up this policy in the early 1990s, putting hundreds of members of the al-Nahda party, Tunisia’s main Islamist movement, on trial amid widespread allegations of torture and sentencing party leaders to life imprisonment or exile. Most influential Tunisian Islamists now live abroad, while those who remain in Tunisia have been forced to form a coalition with unlikely secular and communist bedfellows.
The nature of the opposition and the willingness of the Tunisian government to back down are not coincidental. If it had been clear that Islamist opposition figures were playing a large role in the current unrest, the government would likely have doubled down on repressive measures. The Tunisian government is rooted in secular Arab nationalist ideology and has long taken its secularism and its nationalism more seriously than its neighbors. Habib Bourguiba, Ben Ali’s predecessor and the father of the post-colonial Tunisian state, took over lands belonging to Islamic institutions, folded religious courts into the secular state judicial system, and enacted a secular personal status code upon coming to power.