Exit Ben Ali - but can Tunisia change?

By Prof Emma Murphy
Durham University

image captionCritics say President Ben Ali was the head of a corrupt network of power in Tunisia

Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali came to power in 1987 through a constitutional coup and he appears to have been removed from power through a constitutional coup.

The key here on both occasions was not the constitution but the army.

In 1987 the army moved to secure stability as an increasingly senile and paranoid President Bourguiba threatened to bring the country to a political and economic crisis.

Today it has moved to restore that same stability by removing a president whose person and family have become synonymous with corruption, growing wealth disparities, and political repression.

The question now is whether the interim leadership council will be used to move the country towards a democratic future through meaningful political reforms, free and fair elections, a liberalised media and a new inclusive approach to rule, or whether this is a stalling tactic by the army and the regime elite to quell protests and then restore their grip on power.

'Ben Ali's man'

The signs are mixed. Mr Ben Ali's departure has been described by Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi as temporary. The prime minister himself is a technocrat who was an architect of the very economic policies which the Tunisian public believe to have failed them.

He has been at the heart of the Ben Ali regime since very early on. He cannot himself be seen as anything other than Ben Ali's man, for all his oft-discussed personal integrity.

For all his language of constitutionalism, he is still backed by a state of emergency, enforced by the army and internal security forces.

Without serious reforms - and even so not within the six months pending the election - it is hard to see how this leadership council can oversee the emergence of a fully-functioning, genuinely representative form of political activism which can lead to a truly new regime.

The alternative is national government, inclusive of the various legal political parties and perhaps one or two others whom the military do not consider a threat to the stability of the country and its relations with important allies such as the US and the EU.

But the legal opposition are weak, personalised, factionalised and compromised by years of collusion with - or submission to - the Ben Ali regime.

Can they deliver anything more for the Tunisian people?

Probably not. But if democracy is going to come, the leadership council needs to make very early indications that there will be substantial reforms to the political party system, the election processes, freedom of association, civil rights and the freedom of the media well in advance of the elections.

An early end to the state of emergency and some clear indication that the committee into corruption announced a few days ago will directly address the activities of the Ben Ali and Trabelsi clans would go a long way towards convincing Tunisians that, this time, the promises of constitutional rule will be fulfilled, that this time national reconciliation will really mean just that, and that the army, in defending stability, will not once more succumb to the defence of authoritarian rule.

Emma Murphy is a professor at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University and an expert on Tunisian affairs.