Tunisia builds democracy with Ben Ali gone

AFP , Monday 14 Mar 2011

Tunisian efforts to transform the political landscape continue amid fears that the country may still be robbed of its reward

A picture of Mohamed Bouazizi, the local fruit vendor who set himself on fire, is seen on the top of a monument along with pictures of other victims killed in clashes later, Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, (AP).

Two months since Tunisia's president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fled the country on 14 January, the democracy activists who forced him out are working hard to consolidate their new-found freedom.

Across the border in Libya fighting rages. At home, democracy is taking faltering steps, and those who toppled Ben Ali know the hardest part is yet to come.

In 60 days Tunisia, which lit the fires of change in the Arab world, has already seen bloodshed, crises and upheavals. Two prime ministers have come and gone, and the present government is the third.

On 24 July, Tunisians will vote in the first free elections since independence in 1956 to choose an assembly charged with drawing up a new constitution and building democracy.

It is a short time frame, analysts say. A swarm of parties, some with no programme, are knocking at the door, demanding to be legalised.

And before a second republic can be created, Tunisia has to shed the legacy of Ben Ali and "renationalise" a country privatised by the president and his wife.

Ben Ali did much the same when he overthrew his predecessor Habib Bourguiba on 7 November, 1987, and set about obliterating all trace of him. Now it is his turn.

Ben Ali's favourite number, seven, has vanished along with his favourite colour, the omnipresent mauve. "Tele 7" has become "national television" once again.

Streets have been renamed, and the pictures of Ben Ali and his wife Leila - on the front pages whatever the news - have given way to cartoons.

The "president's men" have also been arrested. Key members of the Leila Trabelsi clan that looted the nation are on the run or behind bars. But for those captured, the first verdicts have already been delivered.

For two months now, those who overthrew Ben Ali have kept up the pressure on their new leaders for fear of being robbed of their victory, which was won at the cost of hundreds of lives.

People want proof that their revolution will not be confiscated, one politician said.

Ben Ali's party has been dissolved, as have the political police that for 23 years terrorised the people - who now speak openly and without fear.

After the storm, calm has returned. The strikes and demonstrations have stopped, and the country needs to go back to work.

Bosses and unions work together to confront the problems of unemployment, the source of much of the anger that swept away Ben Ali.

The question is, what to do with the revolution? And with whom?

Riots in Tunis at the end of February - after Ben Ali's overthrow - left six dead, raising fears that the old regime is not dead.

"Do you think that it (Ben Ali's party) no longer exists after a wand has been waved?" warned Yadh ben Achour, who heads a committee to turn the democratic transition into a reality.

"It is still there, everywhere," he said. After all, its two million members made up one-fifth of the population, he pointed out.

For that reason few will predict what the new assembly will look like, and so the new political Tunisia, without a constitution or a parliament, remains provisional.

"The transition is a hard and risky task, but we shall make a success of it," said the present Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi.

He too, like President Foued Mebazaa, is "provisional": on a short-term contract until 24 July.

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