Security has been stepped up in centre of the Tunisian capital, the day after President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was forced from power by street protests.Hundreds of troops are patrolling Tunis and a state of emergency is in force. Interim leader Mohammed Ghannouchi has said his priority is restoring order.
Rioters burned the Tunisian capital's main train station to the ground and sacked and looted shops in a wave of unrest, AP reported.An AP photographer saw soldiers intervening early Saturday to try to stop looters from sacking a huge supermarket in the Ariana area, 30 kilometers north of the capital. A helicopter circled low over the capital, apparently acting as a spotter for fires or pillaging. Gunfire was heard anew in the mid-morning. Overnight, public television station TV7 broadcast phone calls from residents of working-class neighborhoods on the capital's outskirts, recounting attacks against their homes by knife-wielding assailants. Al Jazeera raported later in the day the a prison had burned down in Monastir. Al least 45 inmates and possible more than 50 had died in the fire.
Ben Ali yesterday landed in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia), after French president Sarkozy reportedly refused to receive him and after his plane had been refuelled in Sardinia (Italy). A statement by the Saudi royal palace said : "Out of concern for the exceptional circumstances facing the brotherly Tunisian people and in support of the security and stability of their country... the Saudi government has welcomed President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and his family to the kingdom." The Saudi kingdom has a reputation as asylum for ousted dictators, think of Uganda's Idi Amin who lived there until his death.
As far as the political future of the country, is concerned, Tunesian tv announced that Mohammed Ghannouchi, the prime minister is no longer a caretaker president. Ghannouchi yesterday announced that he had taken over, on the basis of article 56 of the Constitution, which makes it possible for a caretaker to replace the president, if this none is temporarily incapacitated. Tunesian TV, however, Today announced that the real interim president as off now is Fouad Mebazaa (77), the president of the parliament and an old trustee and ally of Ben Ali. Article 56 of the Constitution is no longer applied. In its stead it now is article 57, which states that the president of parliament takes over when the president abdicates.
According to this article new elections have to take place in 45-60 days. What consequences all this is going to have for the political future of Tunisia is still rather unclear. One thing that transpires is that 60 days in order to organize elections is very short - too short in fact - for a country where the opposition parties have long been left out in the cold and had to operate in (quasi)-clandestinity, or has even been banned, like the islamic An-Nahda party. Take for instance Moncef Marzouki, a man who relentlessly worked in the service of human rights in Tunisia and who founded an opposition party, The Congres pour la République in 2001. Marzouki is only returning to Tunisia on Tuesday and will then have to organize his followers almost from scratch. The ones that will benefit from the decision to have elections within two months, will be the 'official' parties like the ruling Rassemblement Constitutionel Démocratique (RCD).
Interesting are - in the meantime - the reactions. There are as yet almost no official reactions from Arab countries, which in a way is an eloquent reaction in itself. Almost nothing could scare them more than the prospect of the inhabitants of their country following the Tunisian example.
Reactions from the West were rather subdued. Most European reactions stressed the necessity to restore calm. The Italian premier Craxi even went as far as to state that history probably would give Ben Ali credit for the things he had done for Tunsia. Nobody stressed the necessity to establish democracy in Tunisia, except EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton and the American president Obama.
Obama's reaction is interesting to copy:
I condemn and deplore the use of violence against citizens peacefully voicing their opinion in Tunisia, and I applaud the courage and dignity of the Tunisian people. The United States stands with the entire international community in bearing witness to this brave and determined struggle for the universal rights that we must all uphold, and we will long remember the images of the Tunisian people seeking to make their voices heard. I urge all parties to maintain calm and avoid violence, and call on the Tunisian government to respect human rights, and to hold free and fair elections in the near future that reflect the true will and aspirations of the Tunisian people.
But maybe we have to remember two things: this reaction came almost four weeks after it became cklear that a genuine popular revolt was taken place in Tunisia. Also we have to bear in mind that Obama, this very eloquent president, as far as the Middle East is concerned, has said many beautiful things, but so far has achieved virtually nothing concrete.
As I have said before, each nation gives life to the principle of democracy in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people, and those countries that respect the universal rights of their people are stronger and more successful than those that do not. I have no doubt that Tunisia's future will be brighter if it is guided by the voices of the Tunisian people.