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January 14, 2011

New Leader in Tunisia Calls for a Unity Government

by Lisa Bryant

Tunisia's new interim president called for the formation of a coalition government as riots and unrest continued to grip the North African country.

It was another tumultuous day in Tunisia's capital, marked by gunshots, helicopters flying overhead and a fast-paced series of political changes for this normally staid North African country.

Just hours after hardline president Zine El Abdine Ben Ali fled the country, Tunisia swore in a new, interim leader. He is Fouad Mebazza, the former head of the lower house of parliament. He has ordered the creation of a unity government that includes members of the opposition.   The Tunisia Constitutional Council, which swore in Mr. Mebazza, says the new leader has 60 days to hold new presidential elections.

On the streets of the capital, Tunisians ventured out to survey the damage of widespread looting that broke out following massive demonstrations Friday calling for Ben Ali to go. Tanks dotted the streets that were littered with broken glass and burnt objects. Assailants have also torched Tunisia's main train station.

Still, 22-year old student Hishem Benyaghem says he is optimistic about Tunisia's future. He believes it will only bring good things.

Farez Bouslim, a man in his '40s, is less upbeat. He thinks a democratic transition in Tunisia will not be easy. He is afraid there will be more bloodshed.

Reports of violence continue to flood in. Along with the call to prayer, sounds of gunfire rang across the capital Saturday evening. There were reports of prisoner rebellions and prison fires elsewhere in the country. The evening saw another curfew, with the streets of Tunis empty except for police and soldiers - and looters.

Fueled by the Internet and popular uprisings, the power change - dubbed the Jasmine or Facebook revolution -  is being watched closely overseas. Washington, France, the Arab League and Germany have all praised the ordinary Tunisians behind it. But they are also calling for democratic elections to follow.

At the end, says Claire Spencer, a senior North African analyst at London think-tank Chatham House, Tunisians had had enough of Ben Ali's hardline regime. "When the corruption is too flagrant and the responses are too heavy handed,  people say we can't tolerate this anymore. This is beyond what I and my personal dignity can stand," she said.

Spencer believes democratic change is possible but it will happen gradually. And she says that other things Tunisians hunger for - jobs and economic opportunities - will likely come slowly.