Tunisia's President Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia on Friday, leaving Prime Minister Muhammad Ghannouchi temporarily in charge, but a new president, Fouad Mebazaa, former head of the lower house of pariliament, was sworn in yesterday closing the option of Ben Ali's return. Mebazaa promised to form a unity government, as looting, killing and prison riots swept the nation.
Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the dicator who had ruled Tunisia since 1987, tried a carrot-and-stick approach in an attempt to quell the rioting that went on for three weeks before his ouster.
On the carrot side, the Tunisian leader promised to create 300,000 new jobs for college graduates. The Ben Ali regime had invested a great deal in education but could not cope with the vocational expectations of the students and their desire for political participation. It was the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old student a month ago in protest over high unemployment and inflation that triggered the current unrest.
A gesture to the demonstrators was the sacking of the minister of interior, Rafik Belhaj Kacem and the appointment of an investigation committee to study both the recent violence and official corruption. Another unsuccessful conciliatory gesture was the release of some of the protesters who were arrested.
The Tunisian government blamed both Islamic and leftist groups for inflaming the protests and took stern measures such as shutting down schools and universities across the country. The government also brought in military reinforcements including tanks deployed around the ruling party headquarters and the radio station.
While the opposition was disorganized and leaderless, it gathered support from various sectors of the Tunisian population as well as from the geographic breadth of the protests – from the capital Tunis to towns in the periphery.
As the situation deteriorated last week, cautious comment on the situation came from the outside. The most outspoken person was the European Union's head diplomat Catherine Ashton. Her spokesperson denounced "the disproportionate use of force by police against peaceful demonstrations".
France, the former colonial power, while refusing to play the role of the preceptor, had said it hoped that the authorities in Tunis could meet the "expectations of their people". European Mediterranean countries close to Tunisia such as France, Italy and Spain wanted to see the situation resolved as the last possible thing they wanted was a collapse that could swell the number of Tunisian migrants in their countries.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was also cautious in calling for a peaceful resolution last week. The State Department voiced its concern over "the use of excessive force", but balanced that by praising the very positive aspects of our relationship with Tunisia." Ben Ali may have been a dictator, but what succeeds him could conceivably be much worse, despite talk of a unity government..
Ben Ali seems to have overstayed his welcome. He had in effect offered Tunisians a promise of stability and prosperity in exchange for political quiescence to an autocrat. He is not the first authoritarian leader to go down that road. Even Franco tried it in Spain before WWII. But this strategy is hostage to economic performance. When the economy falters, the population feels shortchanged. It is also a treadmill because the creation of a larger middle class triggers both economic and political aspirations that the regime can satisfy with increasing difficulty. Other Middle Eastern dictators may be pondering that equation today.