The interim prime minister of the North African country that inspired the ongoing uprisings throughout the Arab world resigned Sunday after a new round of daily protests resulted in three weekend deaths.
Interim President Fouad Mebazaa named Beji Caid Essebsi, a former foreign minister who served under Tunisia’s long-ago President Habib Bourguiba, as new caretaker prime minister ahead of elections planned for the summer, state television reported.
Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, who served in the same post under deposed President Zine el Abidine ben Ali, bowed to public pressure and unruly street protests demanding that any traces of the former regime be purged from public life.
“After taking more than one week of thinking, I became convinced — and my family shared my conviction — and decided to resign as prime minister,” he said in a televised address.
The uprising that led to Ben Ali’s ouster, triggered by the self-immolation of a young vendor, has since inspired a revolution in Egypt and ongoing uprisings across the Middle East. But Tunisia, since the toppling of Ben Ali, has suffered unrelenting political chaos as protesters, civil society groups and labor unions continue to press the interim government for more concessions.
The three who died in Tunis on Saturday were among more than 100 people injured in a day of intense clashes between demonstrators throwing rocks and security forces firing tear gas. The continuing violence has stymied the country’s battered economy, which is dependent on tourism from Europe.
The unfolding political crisis here highlights the likely long road to any possible democracy in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign after 30 years in power, as well as in other countries including Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, where citizens also are clamoring for political change.
Ghannouchi was to serve as prime minister only until planned elections in July. The interim government is scheduled to announce dates and a program for the elections within days.
But few of the newly emboldened political activists driving near-constant street protests trusted Ghannouchi to oversee the vote. And Ghannouchi was ultimately unable to communicate with the youth. A day before he resigned, he spoke dismissively of the protesters demanding his ouster.
“These are gangs that are running around in some areas spreading chaos and involved in looting and theft,” he told the satellite TV network Al Jazeera in comments that some considered insulting.
Ghannouchi’s supporters blamed his resignation on a mixture of Marxists, Islamists and former regime loyalists conspiring to sow chaos and undermine the revolution. A small group of supporters gathered outside his house Sunday to show their support.
But even those who did not take to the streets against him were suspicious of Ghannouchi, a technocrat with little political base who had made his career alongside Ben Ali. Some criticized him for staffing many of the 24 provincial governments with officials allegedly tied to the former regime.
But even some uneasy with Ghannouchi worry about the consequences of his ouster, which may steer the country off the constitutional roadmap and set a precedent for mob rule.
“The consequences of Ghannouchi’s resignation will be serious,” said Hamadi Redissi, a professor of political science at the University of Tunis. “It will not be easy for the next prime minister to face off against the street.”
Some observers said Ghannouchi found himself in an impossible situation, a former stalwart of the former regime trying to manage a nation in the throes of revolutionary passion.
“The situation was so difficult,” said Boujemaa Remili, a political consultant. “It is a revolution. Perhaps he concluded he had to step aside to facilitate the situation.”
Ghannouchi’s enemies are hard to pinpoint. “You can’t find a particular organization that opposed him, but there is an unorganized movement,” Remili said.
Hassaini is a special correspondent.