Tunisia's New Regime: A Lot like the Old Regime?

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Martin Bureau / AFP / Getty Images

A Tunisian protester holding a baguette talks to riot policemen during a demonstration in Tunis on Jan. 18, 2011

Tunisia's day-old national unity government was already in disarray on Tuesday, Jan. 18, after four opposition Ministers walked out of the Cabinet to protest the continued domination of the new administration by members of Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), the political organization of ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

In a bid to distance the new regime from the despot, the interim President and Prime Minister both quit the RCD. The measure, however, is unlikely to satisfy grass-roots critics or the hundreds of demonstrators who protested the makeup of the new government. Dozens of viewers called the state-run Tunisie TV to complain. "What, do they think we are stupid?" asked a man who identified himself as Ahmad. "Is this what people died for?"

The reaction was a sign that removing the strongman may have been the easy part. Determining how to disentangle his party from society, what to forgive and what cannot be forgotten, may prove the more difficult task.

The opposition's ministerial resignations were a brazen move of brinkmanship; the RCD cannot retain any credibility without opposition members, while opposition members can't be seen as willingly rushing to serve in a government dominated by members of the old regime. It's a delicate balancing act for the newly empowered protest movements thrust into the mainstream after decades in the wilderness: What concessions does a proudly leaderless civil uprising have to make when it comes time to lead a country still in turmoil?

For some Tunisians, still giddy over the lightning pace of change, there is little room for pragmatism. "We are an educated people. We have plenty of successful businessmen and professors who can rule and do a better job," says Hamid, a 42-year-old resident of the capital. In fact, Slim Amamou, a Tunisian blogger whose remarkable transformation from jailed activist to Tunisian Minister of State for Youth and Sports took less than a week, was feeling the full fury of the Twittersphere for accepting a position in the new administration. "Please resign Slim, please don't sell your soul for money or power or position let RCD know we hate them," someone tweeted. "It's a temporary govt to setup elections. I'm here to watch and report and be part of the decisions Not here to rule," Amamou replied to the deluge of disgust.

Hundreds of angry demonstrators staged running battles with police in central Tunis on Tuesday, demanding that the stalwarts of Ben Ali's 23-year rule be ousted from having any share in power. Police used tear gas to disperse the crowds, which seemed to regroup as quickly as they scattered. It was an eclectic mix of marchers: young women with hijabs walked alongside men with graying mustaches. "This isn't a national unity government — it's a new name for the old regime," said a bearded man waving a baguette at a reporter. (The French-style bread loaf has become a symbol of what is sometimes called Tunisia's "hunger revolution.") It was a sentiment echoed across the capital and beyond. "The intifadeh isn't over yet," says a 30-year-old mobile-phone clerk in another part of Tunis, using the Arabic word for uprising. "It won't be over until we remove all of these thieves from power. We don't want them any more."

Still, in many parts of the capital, an outward sense of normalcy prevailed. Streets thronged with orderly traffic, businesses were open, and street-side cafés accommodated patrons seemingly oblivious to the demonstrations just streets away. Tanks, however, remained stationed at major intersections, and a dawn-to-dusk curfew was still in place. Unlike in previous evenings, however, the sound of sporadic gunfire was absent Tuesday night. The relative quiet was disturbed only by the thudding of helicopters hovering overhead, scanning the city.