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Tunisia's shaky transition

Melissa M. Cyrill is Research Intern at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • April 22, 2013

    Two years since its revolutionary protests triggered the Arab Spring, Tunisia remains in a state of transition from dictatorship to democracy. As it did not suffer the level of tumult of Egypt or the gruesome carnage of Syria, the North African state had largely been billed as a post-revolutionary success story. The assassination of leftist opposition leader and secular vocal critic Chokri Belaid, in February, however, revealed precarious undercurrents. It spotlighted deepening political chasms and rising political violence due to the weakness of the Ennahda-led coalition government and its failure to co-opt the other political groups. Whilst suspicions of extremist propaganda have abounded in all countries that have witnessed the rise of Islamist parties after the overthrow of dictatorships, Belaid's brazen daylight murder implicated the Tunisian government's growing lack of legitimacy. Even as Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali denied all allegations of the government's involvement, accusations of complicity refused to die down and the assassination precipitated the worst political crisis since the one that toppled President Ben Ali two years back.

    The ensuing chaos eventually led to the resignation of Jebali and a declaration that he would not run for the next election.1 which failed due to the absence of Ennahda's support even while opposition leaders insisted upon apolitical technocrats leading key state institutions2. As the Tunisian public took to the streets in fury and protests following Belaid’s assassination, Ali Larayedh - the interior minister in Jebali's government and a member of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party - was asked to lead the new government provided he finalise his cabinet with President Marzouki in two weeks. This was achieved amidst considerable lack of consensus that saw three political parties leave talks that could have otherwise helped in forming a broad based coalition.3 Considering the new cabinet retains the coalition status quo, there remains a chance that the politics of obstruction may win over compromise and consensus overshadowing any constructive policy-making.

    The New Cabinet

    In a bid to restore much needed stability in the country after the eruption of protests, Prime Minister Larayedh sought to compromise with opposition parties and the Ettakatol of the ruling coalition to waylay the deepening political suspicions of the Islamist Ennahda's hegemony and diffuse public anger. Lotfi Ben Jeddou, a judge serving in the country's poor western edges was proposed as interior minister; Nadhir Ben Ammou, a law professor, as justice minister; Othman Jerandi, a career diplomat, as foreign affairs minister; and Rachid Sabbagh as the defence minister. Noureddine Bhiri, member of the Ennahda and erstwhile minister of justice was assigned as deputy minister of political affairs and veteran politician Elyes Fakhfakh, previously the minister for tourism, was allotted the finance ministry portfolio. The presence of independents in four crucial ministries was clearly directed at neutralizing any concentration of power, perceived or otherwise. The cabinet chosen by the Prime Minister-designate won the approval of the majority in the National Constituent Assembly during the Confidence vote held on March 13th. It will oversee executive affairs until new elections in the end of 2013.

    Socio-economic Challenges

    With the political transition proving to be trickier and longer than expected, the Tunisian people are steadily losing patience as was brutally demonstrated in the self-immolation of Adel Khedhri, a young Tunisian cigarette vendor, on the same day as the parliament approved the new cabinet.4 For Tunisians, affecting a change of government was merely the first step towards consolidating the country’s democracy. Today, socio-economic injustices desperately dominate people's minds as they hope the new government tides over shrill political battles to focus on the real issues at stake. These concerns were debated and evaluated in the recent 13th World Social Forum in Tunisia, hosted for the first time by an Arab country. Moving forward, what needs to be secured is the legitimisation and concretisation of the new government's agenda and its political programme. The government needs to re-establish security, develop the economy, address growing poverty, gross income disparities, high inflation and unemployment rates, ensure accountability and create a favourable environment conducive to holding the next elections.

    In a press briefing in November 2012, the Indian Minister of State for External Affairs, E. Ahamed, emphasized the fact that India had followed the Tunisian revolution and its steps towards democratisation with great attention. He further expressed India’s readiness to provide assistance to support the Tunisian experience and initiate a new impetus to bilateral relations, diversifying their trade and economic relations.5

    Securing Democratic Stability

    A tentative breakthrough has indeed been achieved in Tunisia with the government stabilising itself rather than giving way to a technocratic entity. Yet, the deadlock over the new constitution remains with constant feuding between Islamist, secular and other politicians. Another pressing concern facing the Ennahda-led government has been the increasing hostility of the Salafi jihadist movement6 and its promotion of political violence7. Tunisia’s ruling party has continually faced scathing criticism from orthodox Salafi groups, while at the same being accused of being lenient on the Salafis8 by the secularists. The Ennahda believes in a gradual democratic process that eventually sees the adoption of those principles lost under colonialism and dictatorship, while many Salafis rebel against the very concept of democracy.9 According to the latter, ‘democracy infringes on God’s sovereignty by establishing humans as legislators’.10 Such inherent intra-Islamist disputes could derail Tunisia’s fragile polity. According to Ennahda senior officials, the party leadership has been divided over how tough it needs to be in tackling extremist movements such as Ansar al-Sharia.11 The government needs to build a nuanced strategy for dealing with hard-line Islamist movements that differentiates between those that advocate aggression and those that don't, else the rising political violence will nullify the last two years’ worth of political process and nation-building.

    Additionally, if the promises of the Jasmine revolution are to fructify, consensus over the structure of Tunisia's political system needs to be established. Currently Ennahda has endorsed a pure parliamentary system as opposed to the opposition demanding the retention of key powers with the president. The transition has been fraught with intense political rivalries amongst the 115 political parties and their coalitions, with the government failing to secure any cross-party support to broaden its base. The national assembly elected in late 2011 has yet to finalise the draft of the new constitution and has been witness to repeated postponement of deadlines.

    Tunisian lawmakers have voted to have the constitution completed by April 27, 2013 with July 8 signalled as the fall-back deadline. Following it, if the new constitution is not approved by a two-third majority in the NCA, it will be subjected to a popular referendum. According to the state news agency, elections are to take place between mid-October and mid-December, depending on a supervisory election commission that has yet to be set up. The timeline needs to be considered as an opportunity for various parties to approach the project of nation-building more constructively and move beyond political rivalries, lest the first fruit of the Arab Spring turn sour over sheer power-mongering and socio-economic disarray.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.