For Tunisia, many questions linger

Events are still moving quickly in Tunisia, where word has just come out that 87-year-old Fouad Mebaza, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, is now the new interim president after someone (we don't know who) determined that yesterday's takeover by the prime minister wasn't strictly legal. Also today, Saudi Arabia announced that it had welcomed Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the ousted president, and his family.

Under Article 57 of the Tunisian Constitution -- invoked today by the Constitutional Council because Ben Ali has fled the country and is therefore incapable of performing his duties -- Mebaza can only be in charge for a maximum of 60 days, after which he must hold a new presidential election (in which he is not allowed to run). Whoever wins may at that point dissolve the parliament and hold new legislative elections. 

We'll have some informed anlysis of the particulars in a few hours, but here are a few questions to think about.

Who is actually running the country right now? The military? The security services? Top civilian officials? Where are these decisions coming from?

Is it a good sign that the Tunisian regime, or rather what's left of it, is trying to following constitutional procedure?

Can one of the most repressive governments in the world, where the last presidential contest saw Ben Ali re-elected with 90 percent of the vote, organize and hold a credible election in only 60 days? Does it want to, or will it try to cheat? And are there any opposition figures who have the national stature to win?

How will the protesters, who seem to have largely stayed home again today, react to this new development? Was getting rid of Ben Ali enough to satisfy them? Or will they now fracture, as the regime probably intends?

More later.


Scene from a silent embassy

What's the protocol for diplomats when the government they serve has collapsed? The staff at the Tunisian Embassy here in downtown Washington DC, apparently deciding that the political paralysis at home required a visual metaphor at their foreign outpost, immobilized the building's front gate with a tightly-coiled iron chain and a padlock. The modernist embassy building served this afternoon as a silent backdrop to a couple of dozen Tunisian immigrants chatting excitedly among themselves as the occasional passing car honked in solidarity and two secret service officers casually stood to one side.

Chained-up as it was, the embassy was hardly making a show of hospitality, but a doorbell offered at least the promise of some normal communication. A man's voice promptly answered over the intercom, "Oui?"

I introduced myself.

"We are closed."

Might there be someone I could speak with?

"There's no one here."

And you are?


Anyone else there?

"We are closed."

The demonstrators told me to give it up. "They are in there, but they are afraid," Monaem Mabrouki, a Tunisian immigrant, told me. "We don't want to hurt them, but they don't feel like celebrating with us." I imagine it's only a matter of time: the scene on the street seemed a lot more fun than the aura of angsty silence coming from the embassy. But who can begrudge a day of private mourning for the passing away of a political order?