Meaning behind Tunisia's revolution becomes murky

The greater the number of hours since the Tunisian leader left the country, the less we seem to know about what actually transpired.

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When Zine al Abidine Ben Ali quit Tunisia on Friday after 23 years in power, the situation he left behind seemed all too clear. He had been forced out by a popular uprising - a "Jasmine Revolution" - and the country was set for renewal and social harmony under a freely elected leader.

Yet as the days pass, the situation becomes less clear. The term "Jasmine Revolution" seems hardly appropriate, as it is not clear what sort of change of power there will be, and which direction it will take Tunisia.

While there is a widespread sense of relief that youths are no longer being killed on the street and that Mr Ben Ali has left, the dominant emotions seem to be fear of looters and apprehension about how the country will manage to keep to the 60-day timetable set by the constitution for electing a new president.

In a country where politics has been frozen, and where the youthful demonstrators have no clear leaders, forming an interim government would be a tough task even with firm and clear-sighted leadership.

The task has fallen to the speaker of parliament, Fouad Mebazaa, a 78-year-old trusted servant of the Bourguiba and Ben Ali administrations who, as required by the constitution, has been sworn in as interim president. He has asked Mr Ben Ali's last prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, a 69-year-old technocrat, to form the next government.

Even the mechanism that forced Ali to leave is still unclear. Protest movements these days are always dubbed by the media "Twitter revolutions". But while there is plenty of evidence of information and rumours being shared, there is no sign of any hidden leadership using the micro-blogging service to get the people out on the street. Ultimately, the Arabic satellite TV news channels were probably the strongest mobilising force, by picking up and broadcasting the photos and videos of the demonstrators.

The Tunisian army is now generally credited with forcing Mr Ben Ali's hand. By refusing to join the police and other elements of the security forces controlled by the Interior Ministry in firing on demonstrators, the army commander, General Rachid Ammar, left Mr Ben Ali exposed as the disturbances reached the capital.

According to the former French ambassador to Tunisia, Admiral Jacques Lanxade, it was probably Gen Ammar who told Mr Ben Ali that the game was up and he should leave the country.

The presence of the army on the streets, complete with its rather ancient tanks, has prompted rumours of a military coup. Some have even suggested that the military were angered by Mr Ben Ali's starving of their budgets in favour of the police's. It is certainly true that the Tunisian defence budget is small - 1.4 per cent of the country's gross domestic product. By contrast, neighbouring Algeria spends more than twice as much as a proportion of its national income on its armed forces.

The TV news channels have been full of talking heads expressing fears of the military seizing the reins of Ben Ali's dictatorship. "Ben Ali took our wealth, but the army is taking our dreams" is a typical comment.

But such speculation should be treated with caution. The Tunisian army has never played a role in politics - Tunisia gained its independence by negotiation, not by fighting, as in Algeria. Its generals have always hung in the background. Even Mr Ben Ali, an army intelligence officer by training who moved to internal security, relied on the police.

The only circumstance that would force the army to play a prominent role would be the inability of the civilians to run a government. It is too early to predict what might happen. At the moment, the army appears to be the only stabilising force in a murky situation characterised by prison riots, widespread looting and the appearance of neighbourhood vigilantes around the capital trying to protect property.

There are plenty of criminals and liberated prisoners who are using the opportunity to help themselves to some loot. But why was the Tunis railway station torched? Many people blame the looting on Ben Ali loyalists in the security forces who are spreading unrest to pave the way for the ex-president's return to take back power from the ageing loyalists he left behind. In this chaos, the constitution is being correctly followed, but it has not yet yielded any strong leadership.

Yousra Ghannouchi, the daughter of the exiled leader of the Islamist Ennahda party, said yesterday that many people were unhappy that the "faces of the old regime" were now back on television screens. "What is happening now is not exactly what we asked for," she said.

The problem, however, is that we do not know what the demonstrators who took to the streets were really asking for. They were united behind the broadest demands: an end to the rule of Mr Ben Ali and the corruption associated with his family, and a fairer distribution of the country's wealth.

While the Ennahda party may have been asking for a root and branch clear-out of the old regime, others - probably the majority of Tunisians - want a stable transition. The politicians faced with this task have no personal ambition to run the country. Everyone in Tunisia and outside will be looking to see how they cope, who is guiding them, and which faction manages to take the upper hand.

It is notoriously hard to predict the outcomes of political revolutions. Tunisia is a small country, with a highly educated population and no religious or ethnic rifts. It is therefore unusually well equipped to face this challenge. Relying on tourism and an open economy, it needs stability to flourish again.

All Tunisia's friends, in the Arab world, in Europe and the US, will be hoping it does so as speedily as possible.