Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali resigned Tuesday when his own party refused to endorse his government, and Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) just happened to be in Tunis to witness the startling developments.
Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was in Tunis Tuesday finishing up his latest tour of North Africa and the wider Sahel region, which also included stops in Senegal, Mali, and Algeria. At noon, he met with Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki. At about 4 p.m., Jebali resigned. Corker spoke with The Cable from Germany Tuesday evening at the end of what turned out to be a very long and eventful day.
"The issue is that the prime minister wanted to have a technocratic government, a transitional government until they have an election, hopefully this fall. The biggest issue is who is the minister of the interior, which controls security, the policy, and intelligence," Corker explained. "At the end of the day, [Jebali's party] Ennahda and [another ruling coalition party] CPR, they did not want to go along with it. They wanted political leaders in these positions."
Corker met with leaders of Ennahda, CPR, and other political parties in Tunis and relayed that the conventional wisdom on the ground is that Jebali may be asked to try again to form a government before a deadline hits in two weeks.
"Most of the larger entities involved feel like he's someone who has the ability to bring people together and bring people along," Corker said. "He's got to make a decision of whether he wants to go forward as prime minister without technocrats under him and accept the baggage that can come in a country still dealing with trust issues of having people other technocrats running these sensitive ministries."
Concern over who controls the internal security structures is a hot-button issue in Tunisia in part because so many of the leaders who have come to power since the 2011 revolution were jailed or exiled under the previous regime, Corker said. He added that the Feb. 6 assassination of secular political leader Chokri Belaid had sent shockwaves through the country.
"It's affected the country in a big way. It's really shaken the country up. The extremists have access to lots of weapons flow due to the unintended consequences of the intervention in Libya," Corker said.
Corker observed that the streets in Tunis were largely calm Tuesday, however, and he said that the overall political prospects in Tunisia were positive.
"There's confidence among the political leaders that they are going to work their way through this," he said. "Amongst all there was a determination and an optimism that they are going to make their way through this and solve these problems."
In Mali, Corker met with the leader of the French-led intervention there and said he had heard that the French are looking hard for a way to transition their mission to one led by international forces -- a process Corker referred to a "bluecapping," a reference to the blue hats worn by United Nations peacekeepers.
"The one thing the bluecapping of the mission is that it would not be able to do the offensive measures that still need to be taken in northern Mali," Corker said. "In their briefing [the French] are very clear they want to change the dynamic of what they are doing and move to more of a garrison approach. It's going to be more difficult to leave than anticipated."
The United States is supporting the French-led forces with logistics, fuel, and intelligence, and that is exactly the level of support Corker feels is appropriate. He said the initial push of the intervention was successful in retaking control of the capital and scattering extremist forces, but those forces have not been defeated and are now waging guerrilla warfare from the mountains and the desert.
"You don't have an insurgency right now. You have various ingredients who come together against the Malian government. It could well develop into an insurgency over time," Corker said.
Regarding the overall issue of terrorism in North Africa, Corker said, "We've got to have a coordinated international effort and we've got to be proactive, not reactive."
MALI - Office of Sen. Corker