March 4, 2011 / 6:01 PM / 8 years ago

Q+A-Tunisia lays out transition roadmap, risks remain

* New caretaker govt to be appointed soon, election set

* Vote for constituent assembly prolongs transition

* Street protests could resume if govt ineffective

* Watchful military may take bigger role

By Silvia Aloisi

TUNIS, March 4 (Reuters) - More than 1-1/2 months after veteran president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted, Tunisia’s interim authorities have finally come up with a roadmap for the transition, but this may not be enough to restore stability.

Interim President Fouad Mebazza has called an election on July 24 to choose a constituent assembly that will rewrite the constitution, and a new caretaker government — the third since Ben Ali was toppled — is due to be unveiled in two days.

The existing constitution — widely regarded as a corrupt vestige of Ben Ali’s 23-year rule — is all but defunct and parliament has been effectively dissolved.

Still, many questions remain unanswered and the transition is likely to be drawn out — it is not clear when new presidential and parliamentary elections will be held.

And while street protests have subsided after a violent weekend in which five people were killed, demonstrators may grow impatient again at the slow pace of change.

WHY IS THE ELECTION OF A CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY IMPORTANT?

By setting an election date, Mebazza has removed a degree of uncertainty, putting a time limit to the mandate of the interim government after a turbulent week in which six ministers quit.

He also signalled a clear break with the past — as demanded by the protesters — by saying that the rules of the political game needed to be redrawn from scratch. A new constitution is regarded as a vital step towards creating a proper multi-party system and paving the way for democratic elections.

That however will take time — up to two years, according to Slaheddin Jourchi, a political analyst in Tunis.

In the meantime, it is not clear what kind of powers the constituent assembly will have and for how long. A source close to the president told Reuters that the assembly could either appoint a new government or ask the caretaker executive to carry on until presidential and parliamentary elections are held.

WILL THE NEW INTERIM GOVERNMENT LAST?

Interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Sebsi was appointed after his predecessor, Mohamed Ghannouchi, resigned on Sunday following street unrest over his close ties to Ben Ali, who was toppled by mass protests on Jan. 14. Caid Sebsi, 84, announced on Friday that he will name a new government in two days, and said his priority was to restore security and relaunch the economy.

The new administration is likely to be purged of former Ben Ali allies and be made up of technocrats. As ministers will not be allowed to be candidates in future elections, opposition leaders have little interest in joining the cabinet.

“The interim government will remain on shaky grounds, a figurehead administration with its hands tied and under close scrutiny from both the protesters and the opposition,” said Gala Riani, Middle East analyst at IHS Global Insight.

“It seems unlikely that they will be able to address the social and economic concerns that led to the protests in the first place,” such as unemployment and poverty.

HOW ARE THE PROTESTERS REACTING?

Demonstrators who have been staging sit-ins in the Kasbah area of Tunis, near the seat of government, have greeted the latest announcements as a victory of the popular revolt. On Friday many protesters packed up their tents and left the square. But they are clamouring for real change fast, and they face a long wait before reaping concrete benefits from their revolt — so there is a risk they may return to the streets soon.

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF THE MILITARY?

It is closely watching the situation, as shown by the presence of the chief of staff of the armed forces, Rachid Ammar, at the prime minister’s first news conference on Friday.

By refusing to shoot on the protesters and ditching Ben Ali, Tunisia’s military has risen considerably in popularity and presented itself as a champion of the revolt.

The relatively small army was a pillar of Ben Ali’s rule but has developed a reputation as a professional institution and, unlike its counterparts in Egypt and other Arab countries, has no organic link with the political system.

“What we are doing is protecting the revolution. We have no other ambition. If we had wanted to rule, we would have done it straight after Ben Ali’s departure,” a military source said.

However, analysts and some opposition politicians say there is a risk that the military may step in, albeit reluctantly, if the new interim government does not prove more effective than its predecessors.

“It is the only institution able to hold the fort if another government breaks down,” said Riani. (Additional reporting by Tarek Amara; editing by Myra MacDonald)

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