AP Interview: Tunisian Opposition Fears Chaos

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PARIS (AP) - A prominent Tunisian once jailed for challenging the ousted president fears that the "people's revolution" which ended the country's 23-year dictatorship will fall into chaos as residents press for instant rights.

And that, Moncef Marzouki said in an interview Thursday, could benefit the country's old guard and possibly even lead to calls for the deposed president's return.

"All this is extremely dangerous for the country," Marzouki, a longtime human rights activist who has spent the past five years in exile in France, told The Associated Press.

But Marzouki, who was jailed for trying to run for president under the regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, is optimistic enough to envisage seeking the presidency again in upcoming elections. He also doesn't exclude an alliance with the moderate Islamist party Ennahdha.

Tunisia's interim authorities have said elections could be held in about six months. It would be the first free ballot in the history of this small North African nation on the Mediterranean, a French colony until 1956.

Under Ben Ali, women's rights were encouraged and Tunisia became a tourist haven for its deserts, beaches and ancient ruins but the government quashed dissent in politics and the media. Marzouki said Tunisia must finish cleaning house before those elections, sweeping out the old system under Ben Ali's ruling party that spread fear, corruption and patronage.

"The biggest threat is probably chaos. You have a lot of people from the old regime, mainly politicians and what remains of the secret police, and all these people are fearing the future," Marzouki said at his home in Paris a day before his return to Tunisia.

"They think that chaos would probably benefit them," because the people would then seek the return of Ben Ali, said Marzouki, a physician who once headed the Tunisian League of Human Rights.

Tunisians are now clamoring for the rights they were denied for years, but Marzouki says the demand for instant gratification poses a risk because it cannot be fulfilled.

"Now, you feel that really it's a free people in a free country, and this is extremely marvelous," Marzouki said. "(But) the people have to understand that now it's time to build up a new country, and that we need much more discipline, and that they have to accept that we cannot have everything now and as soon as possible."

The 74-year-old Ben Ali fled to exile in Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14 after a month of deadly street protests just as he began the process to name himself "president for life" - the title held by the man he deposed in a 1987 coup, Habib Bourguiba, the founder of modern-day Tunisia.

The top brass in the police corps, which carried out Ben Ali's repressive policies, has yet to be cleansed, and fearful officers are increasingly deserting their posts, Marzouki claimed, citing his southern hometown of Douz. A security official in Tunis confirmed police were vacating their posts, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly.

The official TAP news agency reported Thursday that the army helped arrest gunmen suspected of ties to weekend violence in the northwestern city of Kef. An angry crowd set afire a police station there and police fired on them, killing two people.

Police also fired on protesters during the weeks of demonstrations that drove Ben Ali from power. At least 219 people were killed, according to the U.N.

Marzouki, 65, who left Tunisia after jailings and harassment, came home after Ben Ali's departure. He then returned to France to arrange his affairs before resettling in his country.

Tunisia's parliament voted this week to give the interim president, Fouad Mebazaa, the power to enact laws by decree to expedite reforms before elections. Still, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi warned Tunisians that not all demands could be quickly met.

Marzouki says the prime minister is part of the problem because of his decade under Ben Ali and because only two opposition parties are represented in his Cabinet.

The Ennahdha party representing moderate Islamists is not included, he said, nor is his own party, the Congress for the Republic, created in 2001.

Marzouki has no qualms about the eventual entrance of Ennahdha, banned and hunted down under Ben Ali, onto the political scene and says he knows the party's leader, Rachid Ghanouchi, "very well." Ghanouchi recently returned to Tunisia from 20 years in exile in London.

What if Ennahdha allied with Marzouki?

"Why not?" he said. "Ennahdha is a central part of the (political) spectrum."

The first-ever political opinion poll in Tunisia shows, above all, that its nearly 11 million people have little knowledge of political options. Only three parties, Ben Ali's RCD - whose activities are now suspended - Ennahdha and the legal opposition PDP party are recognized by more than a fifth of people.

Marzouki was jailed twice, once for four months after trying to run in the 1994 presidential election, which was won by Ben Ali with an alleged 99.9 percent of the vote.

"Of course, I have doubts" about Tunisia's future, Marzouki said. "Nothing is sure. But I prefer to be optimistic."


Bouazza Ben Bouazza in Tunis contributed to this report.