Analysis: Dilemmas of Tunisian transition

A grab from Tunisian TV showing Tunisian Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi (C), Abdallah Kallel (L), president of the Chamber of Advisers of Tunisia and the President of the Tunisian Parliament Fouad Mbazaa addressing the nation on 14 January 2011
Image caption All eyes are on PM Mohammed Ghannouchi to see if he manages the transition smoothly

Managing change is a difficult business at the best of times.

For Tunisia's new interim national unity government, it is going to be a tough job satisfying the political aspirations of the Tunisian public, whilst at the same time restoring the stability which has long been Tunisia's crucial economic asset.

There has been much criticism of the composition of the new government.

Opposition leaders have not been allocated any of the key ministries: the defence, interior and foreign portfolios all remain in the hands of figures from the ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD).

But whilst it may be tempting to read this as an indication of the insincerity of Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi when he talks of serious political reform, it may also be an unpleasant, but necessary means of preventing a slide into political chaos and economic crisis.

Mr Ghannouchi himself is respected by international financial institutions as a committed economic reformer whose good work was progressively undermined by the corruption and gate-keeping of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali's family and cronies.

International fear of a sudden reversal in the underlying economic policies and a public-sector spending binge to create unsustainable jobs and restore unaffordable subsidies could lead to capital flight and significant budget difficulties.

At the same time, without the restoration of stability and security on the streets, Tunisia's tourist revenues will suffer a dramatic decline.

Image caption Tourism is an important source of revenue for Tunisia

A final concern lies with the extent of the business empires which are owned or run by the people who have now been forced to flee the country.

Ben Ali, Trebelsi [Mr Ben Ali's wife's family] and Materi [Mr Ben Ali's son in-law's family] holding companies played a substantial role across all sectors of the economy, and uncertainty over their futures will surely add to the difficulties which the government now faces.

No purge

When US forces set up the provisional government in Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein, they pushed through a speedy "de-Baathification" of all public institutions, resulting in a rapid spiralling into chaos and instability.

To purge the government, ministries and public bodies of old-guard RCD personnel right now would have a similar effect, leaving gaping holes in the management, institutional memory, personal networks and business relationships which are needed to run a country - and an economy - as political transition progresses.

Those same relationships are key to maintaining the coherence of the government and the army's efforts to restore stability to the streets in the face of the militias of Mr Ben Ali's internal security forces, who have nothing to gain from political progress.

This is not an argument in favour of the old guard retaining power indefinitely.

It is absolutely necessary for the new government to give early and detailed indications that reforms of the political party and electoral laws will be initiated sooner rather than later, to make sure that elections - when they come - offer the possibility of a genuine transfer of power.

This will entail some complicated constitutional manoeuvring, given that the RCD currently retains 161 of the 214 seats in the legislative assembly.

It also needs careful timing: early elections may be necessary to convince people that change is coming, but premature elections without significant reforms to remove the pro-RCD biases will lead to new problems.

Those would be either a new RCD victory or, as the population boycott a party they loathe, a complete fragmentation of the vote and a failure to form any new government after the elections.

Consensus politics

The sooner the state of emergency can be lifted and the army moved back into their barracks the better, and Mr Ghannouchi himself needs to communicate more fully and with greater detail in his public statements.

The recent popular uprising in Tunisia should not lead observers to forget that Tunisian political culture is profoundly moderate, and prefers the stability brought by consensus to radical upheavals, which can generate violence and throw the country into yet more economic turmoil.

We wait to see whether the legal opposition parties are pursuing such a cautious and conciliatory approach in joining an interim coalition which still puts them at the margins of power, but which they have been promised will deliver a route to reform with stability.

If the calculations of the political elites, both old-guard RCD and legal opposition, prove to be inaccurate, we may yet see the country tipping into anarchy, in which case the army will see themselves as having little choice but to move to centre-stage.

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