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by Lakhdar Ghettas

Thirty years this November

Zine el Abidine Ben Ali assumed power in Tunisia ending thereby the rule of ailing Habib Bourguiba who ruled the country since its independence in 1956. Ben Ali promised political reforms that lured large segments of the Tunisian polity, including the Islamists. Those hopes were soon shattered by the brutal crackdown following the 1989 general elections in which Ennahdha ran on independent lists, and came second after Ben Ali’s RCD party. Leftists were not spared either and by 2010 Ben Ali managed to unite most Tunisians against his authoritarian rule. Tunisians embarked on a political transition that has been underway seven years now. Dubbed the Arab Spring’s exception, a number of explanations have been put forward by different analysts. There is the role of a vibrant civil society, high levels of education, the homogenous fabric of the Tunisian society, and the limited geostrategic interests. One important factor, however, is experiences of dialogue and coalition building among political and civil society actors of different worldviews, especially between secular leftists and Islamists. Those involved in the 18 October 2005 dialogue initiative rightly argue that the outcome of that experience facilitated reaching the agreement on which the 2012 Troika government was formed.

Political transitions following bottom up upheavals are very difficult to navigate in that they bring to the surface all the contradictions that were suppressed by the authoritarian regime. It was inevitable that the Troika government would hit stubborn obstacles that threatened the entire democratic change. In addition to the old ideological battles among Islamists and secularists, the 2011 uprising allowed the emergence of the Salafi voice as a new political actor that attracted sizable segments of Tunisian youth. The 2013-14 national dialogue managed to ensure a minimal consensus on issues that blocked drafting of a new constitution in the 2011 Constituent Assembly. Yet, key issues were either avoided or formulated in vague language. Besides, the participative Salafi voice was not formally present at the negotiation table between Ennahdha and its political adversaries led by Nidaa Tounes. This reality could explain to some extent the bloody political violence during the first months of the post-Troika era, under Habib Essid’s 2015 government. The international Community hailed the 2014 constitution as unique in the Arab world and the Quartet that convened the dialogue was rewarded by a Nobile Prize for peace.

As Tunisians embarked on a fresh start led this time by Nidaa Tounes high hopes were nurtured by the media campaign that supported Nida Tounes and its electoral promises. The reality was, however, more complex than defeating Ennahdha in elections as Nida learned as the party set off to form its government. President Beji Caid Essebsi witnessed the emergence of differences that tore apart the secularists’ alliance against Ennahdha. Essebsi understood he needed Ennahdha in the government if it were not going to play the shadow government role in the parliament. This decision shattered the secularists’ 2014 alliance and pushed the Popular Front into the opposition. Soon after, Nidaa Tounes as well started to disintegrate due to a combination of party leadership struggle thinly disguised as political orientation differences. Current and former figures of Nidaa Tounes disagree on the assessment of this episode. Some evoke the 2013 Paris Consensus between Essebsi and Rached Ghannouchi, others explain it by a genuine commitment on the part of President Essebsi to rise above narrow partisan politics and act in the ultimate national interest, as any statesman should do, especially during historical junctions of the country.

The Nidaa-Ennahdha coalition has so far survived three years. Ennahdha has become the first political force in the parliament following the string of splits in Nidaa party and its parliamentary bloc. This reality that was unthinkable hereto has shaken the Tunisian civil and political landscape and forced shifts in alliances. While the leadership of the two political parties are busy conceptualising ways to institutionalise the coalition for it to hold for the next decade, other secularist political groups have been repeatedly trying to form new fronts in order to undo the coalition. The rank and file of Nidaa-Ennahdha are not however completely in tune with their respective leaders. Segments of Ennahdha youth, especially in the south have not yet swallowed this shift of alliance from former ally Moncef Merzouki, to Ennahdha’s Bourguibism foe Essensi. The same applies for Nidaa’s youth who were recruited and mobilised on an anti-Islamist platform but are now told to make peace with Ennahdha. Some figures in the opposition think this coalition of the “Big Two” is killing the spirit of pluralism and fair political play. Some even think that it would ultimately produce the same conditions that fuelled the 2011 uprising.

Analysts and Tunisian pollical figures offer diverging assessment on the transition strategy. Some argue that holding local elections first could have spared Tunisia all the political violence and economic hardship it has suffered over the last seven years. They argue the root causes of the uprising that began in the marginalised inland regions has not been addressed seven years on; which explains the recurring unrest throughout those regions. The debate around the economic reconciliation project defended by Ennahdha and Essebsi has to some extent shifted the traditional ideological fault lines in favour of new rapprochement among Islamist and leftist youth who all oppose the law that they consider a license for impunity.

Seven years on, one can dissect four main conflict issues in Tunisia today. First, the issue of the coalition of Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda. Second, the nature of the political system. Third, the political role of the UGTT labour union; and finally, the urgency or not of holding the local elections. These represent the main obstacles to the democratic transition in Tunisia but there are other aspects of the transition that contribute to the social unrest other than the economic hardship. A great deal remains to be done in term of dealing with the past. The Truth and Dignity Commission has embarked on a promising journey but there is no consensus on its mandate and role among the Tunisian polity. The Islamist-secularist ideological divide continues to underpin the political debate in the country, the latest episode being President Essebsi’s call to reform the inheritance law in order to promote equal sharing between all citizens in a civic state as the country’s constitution stipulates.

Coalition of the Big Two:

Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda agree that their coalition based on the Paris consensus is vital for the success of the transition. Ennahdha even thinks that the coalition should be developed and institutionalised to devise a development strategy backed by the two parties in parliament and government, over the next five even ten years in order to consolidate the transition. Other parties, however, fear that this coalition of the Big Two will pave the way for the return to authoritarian rule. They are in favour of a consensual rule that is enlarged to all political actors (big and small, inside and outside the parliament). Two recent acts reflect these dynamics. Nidaa Tounes, Ennahdha and Slim Riahi’s UPL have backed a single candidate to preside the elections’ watchdog ISIE and voted for Mohamed Tlili Mansri in mid-November. The response came from Mohcen Merzouk’s El Houra bloc, the Democrats bloc by the formation of the Progressive Parliamentary Front. This new front’s stated objective is to “re-establish power balance in the parliamentary affairs and guarantee political stability”. But few weeks later the talk is about challenging the Nidaa-Ennahdha coalition in general.

Nature of the Political System:

There has been growing calls to review and amend the current hybrid political system that is semi-parliamentary / semi-presidential. Some in Nidaa Tounes think that in order to guarantee the ideal conditions possible for the success of the transition (re-vitalise the economy, and pass the necessary laws and policies), Tunisia needs an electoral law that brings about a majority party rule. They are not necessarily calling for amending the 2014 constitution, but they argue a reform of sorts should be undertaken. This unnerved the other small political parties who consider such a step would pave the way to the return of authoritarian rule. They argue that the institutions enacted by the 2014 constitution have not even been fully established yet to judge the sustainability of the constitution.

In Essebsi’s interview for the national Watania 1 TV on 18 September, he said he understands why some are calling for the reform of the hybrid system, and that although the current constitution allows him to take such an initiative, he nevertheless won’t take it. At the same time, he added, the parliament is free to launch such an initiative. In other words, he is leaving the door open. Politically, opponents of Ennahdha consider a presidential system would ensure the opponents of Ennahdha control of the presidency (last line of defence of secularists), since they are convinced Ennahdha will have the control of local, regional assemblies as it has the majority in parliament now. Ennahdha, however, is not clear on this issue. During the Troika years, Ennahdha first called for a parliamentary system (convinced of their popularity), but after the 2013 crisis the party agreed to the current hybrid system. Since the beginning of the coalition Nidaa-Ennahdha some advisers around Ghannouchi, such as Lotfi Zeitoun, have been on the offensive for a general reconciliation and a presidential system. The party’s Shura council is, however, divided. Some think if a reform of the system is on the agenda, then a parliamentary system should be Ennahdha’s choice not for partisan calculations but to prevent the return of the despotic practices of the presidential rule under which Islamists suffered most.

Political role of the labour union:

Figures of Nidaa Tounes and even some leftists have expressed strong disapproval of the political role of the labour union, UGTT. They consider that the labour union should cease exerting political pressure on the government and the political system (through the Popular Front). This is of course a thorny issue in Tunisia given the historical role the UGTT played in Tunisia’s independence struggle and state building since then. Besides, the labour union played a critical role in the downfall of Ben Ali’s regime as well as the Troika. It was crucial in the National Dialogue 2013-14. Since the temporary alliance between Nidaa Tounes and the PF fell apart because of the inclusion of Ennahdha in the 2015 government tensions have been growing to unprecedented levels, especially after that the PF / UGTT voted against the civil servants reconciliation law. In the above-mentioned interview President Essebsi openly and aggressively attacked Hamma Hammami, FP’s leader, in words with negative connotations. While the President could have opted for another word, he used the equivalent (Faasiq) that is religiously loaded. The interview stirred a polemic in mass media and social media.

No consensus on the urgency of holding the local election:

Disagreements on the urgency of local elections have resulted in postponing them to next spring 2018. Opponents of Ennahdha think that holding the local elections now is technically not feasible because the new local governance law is not ready to discuss and pass, and because the electoral body in charge of organising elections, ISIE, has just been fully staffed. In addition to these technical arguments, they argue that for voters mobilisation sake, budget savings, and to avoid electoral fatigue, it would be logical to combine the local elections with the upcoming regional elections sometime mid-2018. Ennahdha, however, considers those justifications are baseless and that the real reason other political parties have been dragging their feet is their fear that unlike other secularist parties Ennahdha is ready for elections, which would give it an advantage for the legislative and presidential elections in late 2019.

This disagreement is reflected in the parliament. Party blocs in the parliament have spent months before they could finally elect a president for ISIE, this November. Ennahdha fears that even the April date being floated by the opposition is not definite since there are calls to postpone them further and combine with regional elections, which is another dossier on the agenda next year. Meanwhile, there is growing frustration at local level and minor parties (who have nothing to lose) think that holding elections on time, regardless of partisan gain, is crucial for establishing the democratic culture during this founding phase of the second republic. Opponents of this group think that holding elections before arriving at a large consensus is more dangerous for the transition than postponing them.

(*) For more information on the North Africa Program, please contact Lakhdar Ghettas (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)