15 Jan 2011

After the violence, what next for Tunisia?

Tunisia expert Dr Hakim Darbouche tells Channel 4 News that he has “high hopes” that a truly democratic government will come into power, and discusses the wider ramifications for other Arab countries.

People are seen through a Tunisian national flag as groups of Tunisians and supporters demonstrate in Lyon, eastern France, on January 15, 2011 (Getty)

Following the uprising in Tunisia, Channel 4 News interviewed Dr Hakim Darbouche about what this means for the North African nation:

Were you surprised at the protests’ success in ousting the President?

Over the last 48 hours before the decision was made to oust Ben Ali it became the clear that that was the inevitable endgame for the incumbent president.

But before that, before this week I’d have been surprised if the protests led to the ousting of the president, but over the 48 hours before the event itself it became clear that was what was going to happen.

What was the tipping point? What made Ben Ali go?

As the protests reached the Tunisan capital and the president made his ultimate speech, his third speech since the eruption of the violence – those two things were the tipping points.

The speech was really a failure. It wasn’t received very well at all, it was poor in its style and its substance, there was nothing new in it and of course the following day when thousands of Tunisians walked down the streets of Tunis it became clear it was just a matter of time before the president left.

Will we see free democratic elections in the country now?

I think the fact that the protests were genuine grass root protests, they weren’t engineered by any side of the opposition or any other party, I think that will make the coming to power of a new authoritarian regime very difficult.

I think Tunisia has all the ingredients to became a prosperous, stable and open and democratic society.

The question now is whether the security forces, both the army and the ministry of the interior, manage to bring order to the streets and whether the opposition forces manage to come together in unity and organise a stable and successful transition period.

But I have high hopes for the Tunisian society in selecting a government that is truly democratic.

What do you think are the wider ramifications for the region?

It’s difficult to tell.

It’s true that the grievances that led the Tunisian people to revolt are common across the Arab world but I think there differences and nuances across these countries. I think the next few days and weeks and months will tell.

The message of the Tunisian protest for incumbent regimes in the Arab world is very clear – reform or face the street.

The message for opposition and grass root organisations in these countries is also clear and I think it will embolden people’s call for change.

Have you heard any movements amongst grass root organisations in these countries so far?

Yes, but they remain sporadic. We’ve heard of opposition movements in Algeria trying to capitalise on what happened in Tunisia and revive the short lived riots that took place ten days ago there.

We’ve also heard of relatively small protests in Jordan, Yemen, Egypt, Morocco but these remain small and sporadic. The question is how will this be used by the opposition movements and whether they can pull forces together to arrive a situation of change in these countries?

Do you think that Islamic extremists will be empowered to try to seize control themselves?

I think extremists across the region do not have a role to play in politics because they advocate violence.

For moderate and non-violent Islamist parties, then yes insofar they have some sort of constituencies they should and probably will have a role to play.

I think Tunisia is somewhat of a unique case here in North Africa. Because the Islamist opposition has been banned for over 20 years and pushed into exile. I think Tunisian society is not broadly receptive to the Islamist discourse, so that is why it is slightly different to say perhaps Egypt or Algeria.

Tunisian society is highly educated, the middle class is larger than any other country in North Africa.

But I have no doubt that if the new political order that is put in place is truly democratic that Tunisian Islamist parties will play a role whether in government or opposition, because I’m sure there is a portion of Tunisian society that will be receptive to their policies and messages.

We’re seeing a lot of tourists leaving the country. Do you anticipate a stable short term future for the country or are UK residents right to leave?

I think all the ingredients are there for things to be stable in the medium to long term.

In the short term there is high uncertainty and stability in the short term will depend on how the security forces, both in the army and the Interior Ministry, manage to keep the streets and keep public order.

Tunisia is a homogenous society, a highly literate educated society. This should mean that certainly after the transition that Tunisia will go back to stability.

But stability this time will be more long lasting than the stability under the previous regime because it will be based upon transparent democratic and open political principles.

So we will have to watch and see.

Dr Hakim Darbouche is fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. His research at the OIES focuses on North African gas issues.