Tunisia, site of the first Arab revolt, seeks a way forward

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, people in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 7:51 PM

TUNIS - At the entrance to the warren-like casbah here, the 1,000-plus young Tunisians staging a sit-in are worried. They say their "revolution" - the first in a wave of civil unrest sweeping the Arab world - is in danger of slipping away.

On the surface, they should be cheering. The massive street protests in this small Mediterranean nation have inspired a historic clamor for democracy across the region, including an uprising threatening to unseat Moammar Gaddafi in Libya. Here at home, demonstrators' strength of will not only drove out longtime authoritarian leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January, but also forced Mohammed Ghannoushi, the interim prime minister who was his close associate, to step down on Sunday.

But unlike in Egypt, where the democratic transition is moving at a comparatively brisk pace, Tunisians have yet to see anything resembling a timetable for constitutional reform and elections.

At the same time, the nation's leadership is wobbly. The new interim leader, Beji Caid Essebsi, an 84-year-old elder statesman, commands broad respect at home. But over the past three days, three top ministers have joined Ghannoushi in leaving. Meanwhile, the economy is in such dire straits that on Wednesday, Fitch downgraded its rating on Tunisia to one notch above junk-bond status. Some fear that if the democratic transition isn't quickly put on course, the military may feel compelled to step in.

Essebsi, sources close to the government say, will unveil some of the details of that transition on Thursday, including the creation of a constitutional committee to oversee reforms. But it remains unclear whether his pledges will go far enough to please those occupying the entrance to the casbah, as well as other young Tunisians now heady with freedom and a realization of their power to effect change.

"There is still a secret hand manipulating those in power in Tunisia," said Omar Bouissi, 30, an English teacher and one of the sit-in organizers. "We need to make sure the dictator was not driven out for nothing."

The transition in Tunisia will have ramifications across the Arab world, with its success or failure seen as symbolic for democracy in North Africa in particular. Yet Tunisians in general appear to be more patient and optimistic than the activists who have taken to the streets, with many citing a proliferation of more than 50 new political parties here since the fall of Ben Ali as evidence that a new democratic day is already dawning on this former French colony of 10 million.

Perhaps the political force causing the most stir is Ennahdha, an Islamist party long outlawed by Ben Ali that was formally legalized this week. Members of the group, inspired by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, linked up with an unlikely coalition of communists and labor unions to join the effort to oust Ben Ali. In this largely secular nation, some fear that the party's influence may be on the rise.

But many here would still be surprised to see Ennahdha gain more than 15 to 20 percent of the vote, and they say the array of new parties may do well in winning seats in the legislature.

Just outside Tunis, meanwhile, thousands of people who are eager for the nation to get back to work, end the protests and trust in the transition are making themselves heard through demonstrations of their own.

"I think many of us are optimistic that things will work out in Tunisia now, and that we will see democracy take shape here," said Abdelaziz Belkhodja, head of the Republican Party of Tunisia, a new party advocating the creation of a free-market meritocracy. "Yes, you need to be careful, you need to make sure it doesn't slip away. But I, at least, think we have come too far already to see that happen."

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