Tunisia PM resignation may backfire

By Richard Valdmanis ,Reuters

TUNIS — The resignation of Tunisian Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi was aimed at easing street tensions, but could backfire by encouraging the opposition to make further demands, analysts said on Sunday. Ghannouchi’s resignation followed days of violent protests against his leadership of the interim government which is charged with preparing elections. North Africa’s most developed state has been in flux since an uprising toppled former Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali on Jan. 14, and critics of Ghannouchi have accused him of being too close to the former leadership. He gave no indication of who would replace him. Street Tension Ghannouchi said he hoped his resignation would provide a better atmosphere for elections to replace Ben Ali, which are expected to take place no later than July 15. Analysts said they were uncertain that this would work. “The hope is that, with this concession, street protests will calm down and this will allow the government to get to the task of preparing elections,” said Kamran Bokhari, regional director of the Middle East and South Asia for political risk consultancy Stratfor. “But the risk is that it will embolden the opposition forces to demand more concessions.” Five people have been killed in clashes between security forces and protesters calling for Ghannouchi’s resignation since Friday, the government said. The caretaker government was reshuffled in late January after protests over its inclusion of several Ben Ali ministers. Instability Another potential risk is that the departure of Ghannouchi, who served for a decade as premier under Ben Ali, could further destabilize the country by weakening the government’s ties to the security services. Tunisians are frustrated by rising crime rates and evidence that Ben Ali loyalists, who fought gunbattles with soldiers shortly after Ben Ali’s departure, are seeking to cause trouble and derail the transition. Ghannouchi, believed to have good ties to the military leadership, said during his resignation speech that security forces had seized US$60,000 on Saturday that they believe was intended to pay youths to cause trouble in the city. Election Legitimacy Despite risks of renewed protests and potential instability, over the longer-term Ghannouchi’s departure has a chance of adding a sense of legitimacy to election preparations. Roughly 100,000 people took to the streets on Friday afternoon, in the biggest protest since Ben Ali’s removal, to call for Ghannouchi’s resignation — a strong sign that Tunisian’s did not trust him to oversee the transition. An official at Tunisia’s powerful umbrella union, UGTT, told Reuters that Ghannouchi’s departure was a “step in the right direction.” A spokesman for Tunisia’s main Islamist group, Ennahda, also said it was happy, and hoped it would pave the way for a more inclusive interim government.