Tunisia Taps Interim Rulers, Lauds Army

by
January 18, 2011

By MARGARET COKER, The Wall Street Journal

TUNIS, Tunisia—Politicians and opposition figures forged a caretaker government Monday, days after the popular overthrow of Tunisia’s longtime president, as a clearer picture emerged of the army’s role in the largely peaceful handover of power.

The caretaker government formed Monday will run affairs until fresh elections, which this North African country’s constitution mandates be held within 60 days. It includes a handful of ministers from the former regime, including Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi and Foreign Minister Kamel Morjane. Both have reputations among diplomats and opposition leaders as competent professionals. Opposition leaders took three portfolios.

Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali served as Tunisia’s president for 23 years before protests swelled over the past month against lack of opportunity and unemployment under his rule, and against what demonstrators from across Tunisia’s society called corruption in the presidential family. Mr. Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia late Friday, the first leader in the broader Middle East felled by popular uprising in nearly two decades.

Tunisian political developments continued to captivate and apparently inspire people across the wider Middle East. In Egypt on Monday, a man set fire to himself outside parliament, apparently following the lead of the young Tunisian whose self-immolation is credited with sparking Tunisia’s protests in December. Arab media reported three more cases of self-immolation in Algeria and one in Mauritania.

As details of last week’s events begin to emerge, the army is credited by local and international officials, as well as by many Tunisians, for decisions that helped lead to Mr. Ben Ali’s sudden departure and in helping maintain a relative calm in the days since.

Tunisian and European officials briefed on Tunisia’s government collapse credit Gen. Rachid Ammar, the military chief of staff, with refusing an order to open fire on demonstrators last week as protests gained momentum. In the tense 72 hours after Mr. Ben Ali fled the country, Gen. Ammar’s soldiers took the lead in stabilizing the nation, these officials say. That gave civilian leaders the space to fill the political vacuum.

“The reason why Ben Ali fell so quickly is undoubtedly linked to the fact that the first ring around him decided to withdraw its support,” said a senior European defense official briefed on Tunisia.

Observers say that in a region rife with military dictators and occasional coups, Tunisia’s armed forces and Gen. Ammar himself have shown little personal political ambition. That has added to the optimism expressed by opposition figures and many citizens that the North African country could institute real political reforms.

To read more, visit: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703396604576087742543689476.html

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