x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Only a beginning as Tunisia wakes up to a new day

We have seen how quickly the status quo can be changed, but not what the end result will be. Certainly today Tunisians face new risks, as well as new opportunities.

A week, said the former British premier Harold Wilson, is a long time in politics. Over the past seven days, North Africa certainly proved the point. In Sudan, a referendum has concluded that may see the south split from the north; in Tunisia, riots in the street that would have been almost unthinkable only a month ago have toppled a president.

For changes with such sweeping consequence, both countries seem to have thankfully experienced far less violence than might be feared. But what is equally true is that both countries are at a new starting point with many questions left to be answered.

In the long run-up to south Sudan's referendum, it was always known that the details would still have to be resolved. By contrast, events in Tunisia seem to have surprised even the main actors.

A clear picture has yet to emerge. On Friday, the former president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali left the country, ending up in Saudi Arabia. It was unclear whether he left of his own free will or from pressure by the military. Within 24 hours, the constitutional court had declared that he had "definitively" left power and appointed the parliamentary speaker, Fouad Mebazza, as acting president.

What is certain is that the departure of Mr Ben Ali - the lightning rod of protests for more than a month - has not completely defused the situation. Looting and gunshots still troubled Tunis last night.

A period of calm would allow Mr Mebazza and the new government - or, rather, a reformulated old government - a chance to demonstrate their credibility if they so choose. So far, they have made the right sounds. Shortly before being sworn in as interim president, Mr Mebazza said Tunisians "without exception" would be allowed to participate in elections, which are constitutionally mandated within the next 60 days. The quality of those elections, with an opposition that has been squashed and co-opted for decades, remains to be seen.

The grievances of Tunisians, economic and political, have not departed with Mr Ben Ali. In no small part, protests have been fueled by the perception of endemic corruption in his family and administration. For this next government to have any credibility, they will have to demonstrate the will to tackle corruption which saps the country's economy at every level.

How much can be achieved in the next two months, even if the government has the will, is an open question. Tunisia has systemic problems that have been emphasised in the past month, ranging from unemployment to political alienation. Good governance and the institutions to answer citizens' demands will not appear overnight.

We have seen how quickly the status quo can be changed, but not what the end result will be. Certainly today Tunisians face new risks, as well as new opportunities. It is, after all, the beginning of a brand new week.