>– Constitutional Democratic Rally’s Central Committee Dissolved, Party Loyalists Still Control Oppressive Interior Ministry
– Arab League Economic Summit Convenes in Egypt, Soberly Assesses Ben Ali’s Downfall, Prospects for Other Arab Regimes
Pictured above: A woman places a kiss on an army tank on Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis, on January 21, 2011.
Today, Tunisia’s civil servants staged a revolt against the new caretaker government, refusing to work until ministers associated with the party of ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali step down. Staff uprisings have taken place at the state television, two state-run newspapers, and at private firms controlled by the ex-president’s family. Filmmakers held an extraordinary meeting to depose the party-approved head of their union.
Yesterday, Tunisian police fired shots into the air to try to disperse thousands of protesters who gathered outside the Tunis headquarters of the Socialist International-affiliated Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), but they would not be cowed. Ben Ali fled the country last Friday, reportedly seeking refuge in Saudi Arabia. “We are demanding the departure of the RCD because the RCD is not a party. It’s an intelligence service. It’s an armed militia,” said Hafeh Mesrati, a physics professor.
Apart from Habib Bourguiba, Ben Ali was Tunisia’s only post-colonial president. Former President of the Chamber of Deputies Fouad Mebazaa, who left the party on January 18, currently holds this post in an interim capacity.
Demonstrators on Mohamed V Avenue, near the center of the national capital, chanted: “After Ben Ali and his wife, we want to bring down his thieves!” They burned the party logo and waved banners declaring: “Government out!” One of the demonstrators, who gave his name as Aymen, said: “We are here. We are not going to move until the RCD falls. We will come every hour and every day.”
In Sidi Bouzid, the central Tunisian town where the revolt against Ben Ali erupted last week, residents demanded more change. It was here that a vegetable seller immolated himself after being accosted by police. “We want the dissolution of this party. This is the solution, and we want to hold its members responsible for their corruption,” Lazhar Gharbi, a teacher and trade unionist told Reuters. As we previously blogged, Tunisia’s trade unions have been at the forefront of the revolution that toppled Ben Ali.
State TV reported that the RCD’s central committee has been dissolved, although the party will continue to operate legally. The RCD has been in power under several names since 1957, when France granted Tunisia independence. The prime minister and caretaker president abandoned the RCD earlier this week, followed by still more government ministers in a bid to restore the party’s credibility after four opposition ministers jumped ship.
In another blow to the government, a junior minister resigned on Thursday. “I am stepping down for the higher interests of the country in this delicate situation to try to bring the country out of crisis and ensure a democratic transition,” announced Zouheir M’Dhaffar, Minister of State in the Prime Minister’s Office, to the official TAP news agency.
There were protests in other towns across this North African country. In an interview with Reuters, union activist Hedi Radaoui stated that between 3,000 and 4,000 people gathered in Gafsa, 350 kilometers south of Tunis, to protest the presence of the RCD in the interim government. State TV reported there were also anti-government demonstrations in the towns of Kef and Sfax.
On Wednesday, 33 members of the ousted dictator’s clan were arrested for “crimes against the nation.” In a further move to emasculate Ben Ali’s power base, Tunisia’s central bank assumed control over another bank owned by the former president’s son-in-law, Mohamed Sakher El Materi. The Swiss government also froze Ben Ali’s family assets in that country. Although Tunisians, including expatriates, are jubilant over the fall of Ben Ali and the collapse of the ruling party, Dan Murphy, writing for the Christian Science Monitor, cautions:
For now the most powerful positions in government are still held by men who loyally served the RCD and whose positions were preserved by the use of torture and intimidation by the state security apparatus, largely run out of the Interior Ministry. The business of unwinding the party’s control of government, weeding out the most corrupt of the judges and policemen, and delivering on [interim President] Mebazaa’s promise will be a long and difficult one.
The revolution in Tunisia does not bode well for the Arab world’s many other entrenched dictators and, indeed, has cast a long shadow over the Arab League summit, now underway in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik. In his opening comments to delegates, Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League and Egypt’s former foreign minister, soberly observed: “The Tunisian revolution is not far from us. The Arab citizens entered an unprecedented state of anger and frustration.”
This is the Arab League’s second economic summit since 2009, when member states agreed “to set aside political differences to address the social and economic problems plaguing their societies.” Taking stock of the fact that high unemployment, not to mention years of political oppression, led to Ben Ali’s downfall, Arab League delegates resolved to throw US$2 billion at job creation programs throughout the region.
Pro-Soviet leftist military officers, like Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein (Egypt, 1952), Muammar Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi (Libya, 1969), and Gaafar Muhammad an-Nimeiry (Sudan, 1969) seized power in several Arab countries after de-colonization, sometimes overthrowing a monarchy installed by the departing European power. In most cases, they later formed mass-based parties that attempted to institutionalize their revolutions.
By contrast, Bourguiba, “the father of modern Tunisia,” and his New Constitutional Party were not initially socialist but, rather, turned in this direction in 1964 to facilitate economic development. Nor was Bourguiba particularly pro-Soviet but, instead, adoped an independent stance with respect to the Soviets and other Arab regimes.