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Interview: Regional Expert 'Fundamentally Optimistic' About Tunisia's Future

Two women walk past a wall surrounding the burnt and looted house that belonged to the nephew of ousted president in the Tunisdan town of Hammamet.
Two women walk past a wall surrounding the burnt and looted house that belonged to the nephew of ousted president in the Tunisdan town of Hammamet.
Tunisia began three days of official mourning on January 21 for dozens of people killed during the recent monthlong popular revolt. The national flag was flown at half-mast on official buildings and state television broadcast Koranic psalms throughout the morning as the country mourned the victims of a brutal crackdown by the regime of ousted president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

The country's new unity government says 78 people were killed in the unrest but human rights groups estimate the total number of dead at more than 100. Most of the victims were civilians shot dead by police during nationwide demonstrations over unemployment, corruption, and repression that eventually toppled Ben Ali on January 14.

Michael Willis, a professor at Oxford University's College of Oriental Studies who specializes in the politics, modern history, and international relations of the Maghreb, talks to RFE/RL's Radio Farda correspondent Hossein Aryan about the unrest.

RFE/RL: Tunisia is described by many Western officials as an oasis of calm and comparative economic success, yet we witnessed an unprecedented political development in that country. What was the main cause of the uprising, which has been dubbed the Jasmine Revolution?

Michael Willis:
I think the main cause, or I think the initial causes, were certainly social and economic unhappiness, particularly in the interior of the country, with the lack of jobs and rising prices. But once protests began to start on that, it blew apart Tunisia in opening up the really political unhappiness that most people feel in the country towards the regime.

It was one of the most repressive regimes in the Arab world. No criticism or no dissent was really tolerated, and therefore when it blew apart the population went with it because nobody, nobody supported the regime in Tunisia amongst the ordinary population, apart from the people who actually worked for it.

RFE/RL: The interim president, Fuad Mebazza, and Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi were both close allies of Ben Ali and from his party, the RCD, though they both resigned from the party. In forming his unity government, Ghannouchi has defended his decision to include ministers from Ben Ali's old guard. Nevertheless, four ministers resigned from the government on January 18. Can this government quell the country's simmering unrest? What challenges does the unity government face?

I think there are a number of challenges. Basically, what needs to be discovered is what level of participation by old figures in the regime in the interim government will be tolerated by the mass of ordinary Tunisians. Now certainly what I can see in Tunisians I've been speaking to this week say that there are some figures in the government, notably the Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, who are reasonably acceptable. Even though they were close to Ben Ali they were seen as fairly honest technocrats, and most people would be okay with figures like that remaining.

However, other figures -- particularly I think they were mentioning the defense ministers and several other key ministers who were regarded as being far too close to Ben Ali and being involved in the corruption and the repression and the rigging of elections -- people say these figures need to go first for people to have confidence that things are going to change. So there is that element.

Another element is where the groups that are currently banned, like the Islamist movement, have some representation in the interim government. So I think people realize that some old figures from the old regime -- for the sake of continuity, and administrative continuity -- need to remain, but that some of the figures are unacceptable and need to go.

The Islamic Question

RFE/RL: So far there has not been a religious dimension to the unrest. Do you think that could change, considering that Rashid Ghanoushi, a well-known Islamist and founder of Al-Nahda, who has influenced Tunisian politics since the 1980s, is back in Tunisia?

Yes, well the events last week were, across the board in Tunisian society -- there wasn't a religious dimension. However, it seems that some of the protests -- the smaller protests that occurred yesterday against the composition of the government, had a more heavily religious component in terms of the people who were involved in it. Although it has to be said, it was also trade unionists and people from the political left wing as well. That said, the idea that you're hearing in some Western circles, that it's going to be an Islamist government, is not the case.

The Islamists don't have majority support, and even the main Islamist movement, Al-Nahda, which was broken up and banned and repressed by Ben Ali in the 1990s, was always very moderate and largely nonviolent, and has had very good relations with the left wing and secular parties during the Ben Ali regime, who have said to me they believe it to be a party that has more or less signed up to all the key components of democracy, so they trust it. I think Tunisia is a fundamentally quite secular society and I don't think there will be mass support for an Islamist party.

RFE/RL: It appears that the main backer of the government, which has been left intact, is the military. And General Rashid Ammar, the country's top military official, has reportedly refused orders to shoot demonstrators. Do you think the military could take over if the unity government fails to bring the unrest under control and meet the people's demand, considering that the military, though small in numbers, is more professional and les political?

Yes, this is interesting. I mean, when Ben Ali's predecessor Habib Bourguiba established the Tunisian state after independence from the French, he deliberately kept the army out of politics and kept them small and professional because he was worried about the threat of coup d'etat. Ben Ali originally came from the military, but he came up through the security services and the police and the intelligence services -- who seem to be the mainstay of his regime in the army of state -- [he was a] distinct and apolitical actor.

They've clearly got involved to restore order and I think some of the senior people would be rather cautious of getting involved in politics and breaking with that long tradition of not being political that they have established. But I think they realize that in many ways they were the ones fighting against the remnants of Ben Ali's supporters. They would have fairly broad support from the population, but I don't think the senior leadership would want to do it, because it breaks from the long tradition they've established.

RFE/RL: The uprising is hanging in the balance and it is not clear whether the country will be able to draw a line under the past. What is the future of Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution?

Again, things are still happening so we don't know. I am actually fundamentally optimistic. I think that given the fact that Tunisia is quite a small country -- it's quite an urban population, and most of all its an educated population and there are not many social and religious and ethnic divisions -- I think it stands a very good chance of making a transition to a fundamentally democratic, pluralistic political system.

And I think the majority of the population in Tunisia genuinely wants that, including the Islamists, the leftists -- everybody wants that. And I think if they can focus on that, I am actually quite optimistic that this transition will take place.

That said, there is some way to go before that. We don't know how far the remnants of the Ben Ali regime will try and disrupt that and create problems or whether things won't move fast enough for other people, which could radicalize and alienate certain sections of the population who feel that things aren't changing. I think those things are unlikely but they have to be considered. But overall I'm optimistic.

Lessons For Arab World

RFE/RL: What are the potential consequences of Tunisia's civil unrest in the Arab world? Could it affect the internal dynamics of other Arab states? And could it inspire renewed call for change in many sectors of Arab society?

This is a question of course, as you know, [that] has been asked a lot. My view is that Tunisia does have a particular set of circumstances. As I said, in terms of levels of education, the size of the population, how urban it is, [it] hasn't got a very violent history -- all of which bodes well and makes it a rather different case.

In that sense, [in] the other states -- for example, Egypt and Algeria -- the police are much more used to dealing with unrest. They tend to do local deals; they deal with things much more intelligently and more tactically, and you haven't got quite the same circumstances in Tunisia.

That said, the power of the example of seeing people on the streets being able to overturn a dictator will send lessons to ordinary people, I think, to say that perhaps we can do things in our country. But, more importantly, it will send a message to the leaders who will look at what happened to Ben Ali and say: "We want to avoid this at all costs. We need to make some of the changes that will stop this happening."

I mean, the lesson, I think, from Tunisia is that Ben Ali made no concessions until it was way too late, until the last few days. There'd been no liberalization, in fact things had got worse over time, and I think that's the lesson that a lot of the leaders could, and in my view should, draw from what has happened.

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