Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Fears As Tunisia’s Old Guard Regroups

By Eileen Byrne in Tunis

Key figures from the regime of Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali, the ousted president, are positioning themselves for political roles in post-revolutionary Tunisia, raising suspicions that the old guard is regrouping to thwart the country’s march towards democracy.

The RCD, the former ruling party, was dissolved in March and up to 9,000 former RCD office-holders are barred from standing in the election to select a constituent assembly on October 23. The assembly will write Tunisia’s democratic constitution.

But that has not deterred many former party members from regrouping in scores of new parties. Al Watan (“The Nation”) is headed by 67-year-old Mohamed Jegham, who was minister of the interior and then defence in the Ben Ali regime. His party describes itself as centrist but its political platform omits any mention of January’s revolution.

Kamel Morjane, another former defence minister, heads Al Mubadara (“The Initiative”). It calls itself a reformist party, and according to Mr Morjane is “attached to the principles of the revolution” and wants to encourage private investment.

Both men were briefly included in the interim government that followed Mr Ben Ali’s departure to Saudi Arabia, until protesters forced a reshuffle on January 27. And both were, like Mr Ben Ali, born in Hammam Sousse, a town in the prosperous coastal area that has long provided the country’s ruling elite.

Members of the old regime seeking a political comeback say they should not be linked to the rampant corruption associated with Mr Ben Ali’s presidency, particularly in its later years.

Mr Jegham argues: “There are hundreds of thousands of worthy people who were RCD members but had no involvement in corruption, and know how to build up the country. They cannot be excluded with the stroke of a pen.”

If they ignored flagrant human rights abuses under the regime, so did the wider public, he told the FT.

Many ordinary Tunisians are opposed to any witch-hunt against former rank-and-file RCD members, but draw the line at the former decision-makers.

“They knew what was going on under Ben Ali, more than ordinary people did,” said Ahmed Souissi, a civil servant attending a pro-democracy rally. “The least they can do is to eclipse themselves from the political scene.”

The re-emergence of former regime figures has meant that Tunisia’s interim government has had to fend off allegations that a “government in the shadows” is continuing to block any full investigation of the Ben Ali era and its harsh suppression of political opponents, particularly the Islamist Nahda movement in the early 1990s.

Rached Ghannouchi, head of the newly legalised Nahda party, said last week that “the RCD shattered into many pieces and is now reorganising in dozens of small parties to take the country backwards”.

Farhat Rajhi, another former interior minister, alleged in May that a military coup was being readied to block any Islamist win in October.

The prospect of a strong showing by Nahda in the October election is not only worrying members of the former regime but also many ordinary, non-religious Tunisians. But as liberal and leftist parties move to create a common secularist platform, they are keen to avoid scare tactics. “We don’t believe in the politics of fear,” says Mustapha Ben Jaafar, leader of the centre-left FDTL.

Mr Rajhi also claimed that businessman Kamel Ltaief, another controversial political operator who has returned to Tunisian politics, was exercising undue influence – an allegation Mr Ltaief immediately denied.

Previously active in his family’s construction group, Mr Ltaeif was credited with bringing Mr Ben Ali to power in 1987, but was ostracised when he criticised the then-president’s marriage to Leila Trabelsi in 1992. He is also said to have opposed the hardline policy against Nahda sympathisers. He is now active in promoting “national reconciliation” and “an open society”, according to his supporters.

But however hard former regime members try to reorganise, analysts say it is questionable how many voters will back them. Politicians seeking post-revolutionary credibility have to reckon with a politically savvy younger generation that is capable of putting the biography of a new political appointee up on Facebook within hours, notes Sadouk Ben Mhenni, a democracy activist.

Bilal Ifaoui, a 20-year-old building worker from Kasserine, is clear: “Only the main parties made up of people active against Ben Ali interest me,” he says.

This article was published in The Financial Times on 26/07/2011

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