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Could Tunisian opposition groups re-ignite the revolt?

By Larbi Sadiki
University of Exeter

image captionTunisians are watching carefully as events unfold

For the first time in 24 years, key Tunisian dissidents - both exiled and local - are coming together in Tunis, raising two important questions - has Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi done enough to quell the popular uprising, and will the presence of all these opposition figures potentially reignite stage two of the revolt?

Indeed, Mr Ghannouchi has executed his single most important decision in 11 years by unveiling not only a prudent interim cabinet, but also a possible political face of Tunisia after its "people power" uprising.

However, he might not have done enough to divide the opposition through his selective inclusion and exclusion.

His own fate, and that of the whole of Tunisia, will depend on what happens next - when the country's most prominent leaders share a common platform unhindered by the heavy-handed policing of deposed President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

False starts

Thus far, Mr Ghannouchi's "rainbow" government is a blend of new and old, establishment and anti-establishment figures, as well as technocrats and politicians.

This will make the transitional period fraught with disagreements - and in a country where difference is not yet championed due to 54 years of authoritarian rule - trial, error and reverses can be expected.

Eleven of the 23 ministers are new faces, including leftist and liberal dissidents. Of the 11 portfolios, two are allocated to women, including the new Minister for Culture, Moufida Tlatli, who directed the international prize-winning film, Silence of the Palaces.

The key portfolios such as defence, finance, foreign affairs, trade and industry are maintained by ministers well-known to Prime Minister Ghannouchi, who like him, represent the soft and fairly "clean" technocrats from President Ben Ali's ruling RCD party.

Despite arguments against their inclusion, they may be needed in the transitional period to facilitate continuity in governance and a modicum of stability.

The whole country is still coming to grips with newly-found freedoms, and as a result, there may be an absence of clarity for some time.

Returning exiles

image captionMoncef Marzouki received a warm welcome at Tunis airport

However, with the return to Tunis of Moncef Marzouki - a rights activist and founder of the Congress for the Republic - events over the next few days and weeks may get more complicated.

Also, the imminent return from London of the Islamist leader of the al-Nahda Party, Rachid Ghannouchi (no relation to the PM), can be expected to further stir the boiling crucible of Tunisian politics.

The other prominent player and human rights activist left out of the interim government is Hamma Hammami, leader of the Tunisian Workers' Communist Party.

He opposed the idea of the interim government, seeing it as an instrument to kill the uprising.

Should these opposition figures put forward joint demands - for instance, calling on the prime minister and other remnants of the old regime to vacate their seats after free and fair elections - it has the potential to re-ignite the popular uprising.

The power of the country's dissident elite will also depend on what support - if any - they get from opposition leaders who now find themselves with ministerial portfolios in the new interim government, such as leftist Najib Chebbi, Mustafa ben Jaafar and Ahmed Ibrahim.

There is the possibility that Mr Marzouki and Rachid Ghannouchi could try to persuade them that a historical opportunity presents itself to administer a knockout blow to the authoritarian structure bequeathed by President Ben Ali.

How Mr Chebbi, a veteran dissident and pragmatic lawyer, and his Progressive Democratic Party decide to respond could determine whether power is still up for grabs in Tunisia.

The same goes for the once powerful General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), which in the early 1980s grew into a political heavyweight and threatened then President Habib Bourguiba's rule.

The popular revolt gave it a platform to once again find its voice and it played a far more active role in the uprising than any other single political entity.

The UGTT has the largest powerbase in the country and its entry into government was reluctant. Its rank-and-file largely favours continuation of the revolt.

Excluded Islamists

image captionIslamist supporters have called on Mr Chebbi to resign from the interim government

While Prime Minister Ghannouchi has accommodated and banked on the left in order to steer the ship of government, he has for now left out the Islamists.

But he has granted an audience to leading Islamist figure Hammadi Jebali, who seems to be encouraged by pledges of inclusion in the transition ahead.

The Islamists have not thus far displayed coherence over the dizzyingly fast and unfolding events since Mr Ben Ali was ousted late on Friday, 14 January.

Their initial response criticised the interim government for retaining ministers who served under Mr Ben Ali, and even called for a continuation of the uprising.

Exiled for a long time and without any role in the popular revolt, they have quickly adjusted their language, signalling willingness to participate in the interim government, if given the opportunity.

What happens next will of course depend on the national army and its hero, Gen Rachid Ammar, whose own act of disobedience provided the tipping-point that gave the Tunisia popular revolt its victory against Mr Ben Ali.

Larbi Sadiki is a senior lecturer in Middle East politics at the University of Exeter and author of three books on democracy in the Arab world.