Tunisia debates a future without powerful Ben Ali party

AFP, Thursday 20 Jan 2011

As Tunisian's demand the banning of Ben Ali's ruling party, observers question whether a new Tunisian democracy can cope without the RCD's structure without paralysing the state

Mohamed Ghannouchi
Tunisia's Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi walks before a news conference at his office (Photo: Reuters)

Emboldened by a popular revolt that ended president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's authoritarian rule, many Tunisians now demand the banning of his state party, a symbol of corruption and repression.

But whether the new democracy can immediately cope without the once-powerful Constitutional Democratic Rally/Assembly (RCD), which has essentially run Tunisia since independence in 1956, is a question nagging the political elite.

Every day since last Friday, when 74-year-old Ben Ali yielded to weeks of street protests and fled to Saudi Arabia with his family, huge protests have demanded the outlawing of the RCD.

To the cries of "people stand up against the remains of the dictatorship," they have condemned the awarding of plum posts in the transitional government unveiled Monday to RCD ministers.

The eight ministers concerned, who hold key posts in the government, announced Monday -- including interior, defence, finance and foreign affairs -- moved to meet these objections on Thursday.

They resigned from the RCD, following the example of prime minister Mohammed Ghannouchi who had cut his links to the party on Tuesday.

In any case, some believe the north African country cannot immediately make a clean break from a party that controlled the entire administration and its staff for so long, without the risk of paralysing the state.

"At the moment, the urgency is to re-establish the authority of the state," said rights activist Larbi Chouikha, who is among those who want the RCD to maintain a presence in the new government.

"But these are technocrats who have distinguished themselves through their integrity and especially their competence, and who have not been caught up in matters of corruption," Chouikha said.

Other than preparing democratic elections within six months, the new authority has the huge task of overhauling the security forces -- some of whom are accused of a deadly crackdown on protesters.

They also have to relaunch the stalled economy.

On the other hand, Chouikha admits, "the ruling power is not alone. There is civil society, the street. At any moment they could react and say no."

Ben Ali built the RCD in 1988 out of the Neo-Destour movement, which led the country to independence from France in 1956 under the guidance of former president Habib Bourguiba.

It claims more than two million members from a population of 10 million, and has held overwhelming majorities in the parliament.

Union activist Houssine Dimassi also says the RCD is an inevitable "component of the country".

He was named as labour minister in the new government but quit over complaints from his powerful Tunisian General Union of Labour (UGTT) over the composition of the new cabinet.

"We cannot exclude it (the RCD) from the government. That does not make sense, but it has a place proportional to its weight," he said.

The union, the largest in the country, has insisted however it would not join a new government with "old regime" figures.

An opposition party that was holding off on joining the post-revolt government also decided to pull out of the cabinet, in which its leader had been assigned the post of health minister, and called for a new line-up.

The cabinet was to hold its first meeting Thursday.

Writer and newspaper editor Sofiane Ben Farhat argues that the RCD has to be rooted out.

"The current political situation must immediately be representative of the revolution," he said. Otherwise, "we have the impression that the RCD is trying to confiscate it."

RCD ministers in the transitional team may be competent administrators but they are, according to him, "involved -- whether it be in corruption or authoritarian rule."

Trying to present a clean slate, the RCD on Tuesday expelled Ben Ali and six of his close associates caught up in allegations of corruption and repression that have dogged the party.

The new interim president Foued Mebazaa has also meanwhile quit its ranks.

But the anger has not abated. In Ben Guerdane, southeast of Tunis, demonstrators carried coffins to celebrate the "funeral" of the RCD.

Short link: