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Tunisia's Political Transition at Crossroads

  • Mohamed Elshinnawi

Demonstrators demand ouster of Islamist-dominated government during a protest outside the Constituent Assembly headquarters, Tunis, August 3, 2013.

Demonstrators demand ouster of Islamist-dominated government during a protest outside the Constituent Assembly headquarters, Tunis, August 3, 2013.

Almost three years after the Arab Spring began, Tunisians are still struggling with their revolution. Political gridlock and violence have paralyzed the country, sending its economy into a tailspin ahead of planned national elections and the formation of a new government.

Tunisia’s transition from dictatorship to democracy seemed to be working at first. The country conducted elections that led to a diverse and balanced National Constituent Assembly, formed a new coalition government under the leadership of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, which managed to rise above the usual Islamist/secularist disputes, and began drafting a new constitution setting the stage for new elections to conclude the transition.

But the assassination of opposition leader and Assembly member Mohamed Brahmi on July 25 dealt a shattering blow to the transition process. The killing was the second political assassination in six months, following the murder of left-wing politician Chokri Belaid. Both killings were blamed on the militant Salafi group, Ansar al-Shariah, which the government branded a terrorist organization.

Karim Mezran, resident North Africa expert at the Atlantic Council, said the violence has led to a political crisis.

“Ennahda, which governs in coalition with two smaller secular parties, is under increasing pressure from the opposition over an accusation that it is imposing an Islamist agenda, failing to deal with violent Salafi Islamists and mismanaging the economy,” Mezran said.

Mezran added that the National Salvation Front (NSF), an umbrella group of opposition parties led by the Nidaa Tounes party, which is demanding the government’s dissolution, is now emboldened by what they have seen in Egypt, where opposition protests led to the military’s ouster of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood government. But, he noted, the Tunisian army — unlike its Egyptian counterpart — has no tradition of political intervention.

Mohamed Sahbi Basly, who heads the al-Mustaqbal party, said another difference between Egypt and Tunisia is that in Egypt the army wields power. In Tunisia, he said, that role falls to the powerful Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), which undertook recent mediation efforts because it is the only national organization that could press parties toward consensus.

Ennahda leader Rashid Ghannouchi approved the mediation effort and held an unprecedented meeting with Kayed Essebsi, of the Nidaa Tounes party, previously shunned by Ennahda as a relic of Tunisia’s old order.

Mediation efforts center around a UGTT proposal that calls for a change of government following a national dialogue on the formation of a new cabinet and constitution. So far, however, the NSF umbrella group has refused the proposal for broader dialogue, saying it wants a non-partisan cabinet to oversee any national dialogue that takes place.

Tunisians want to avoid Egypt scenario

Emphasizing differences between Tunisian Islamists and opposition from their Egyptian counterparts, Mezran of the Atlantic Council said most Tunisians want to avoid the Egyptian scenario that has left hundreds dead and the country more polarized than ever.

“The Ennahda party is more popular, flexible and willing to compromise than the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt,” he said. “The Tunisian opposition has not been able to gather the masses that its Egyptian counterpart was able to mobilize, let alone the fact that the Tunisian army is neutral.”

Basly of the al-Mustaqbal party agreed that, unlike their counterparts in Egypt, Ennahda leaders seem willing to compromise.

“Tunisian society and political parties learned from the Egyptian scenario that continued polarization does lead to confrontation and violence, which will obstruct efforts to rejuvenate tourism as a major source for revenues,” he said. “So they will end up reaching a compromise instead.”

But, Basly said, this cannot be done quickly, and he predicts that elections will be delayed until March of next year to allow more time for a compromise.

Radwan Masmoudi, president of Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Tunisia, predicts an eventual agreement between Ennahda and the Nidaa Tounes party leading to a split in the opposition.

“Nidaa Tounes can strike a deal with Ennahda at the expense of the left-wing Popular Front especially if the two sides agree on the popular demand to form an independent non-partisan technocratic government to ensure fair elections and amendments to the drafted constitution that would guarantee a civil state” he said.

Mezran of the Atlantic Council said now nearly three years after their revolution, Tunisia is at a crossroads.

“Polarization could continue and politicians could resort to mobilize street demonstrations that eventually could turn into violence, or they could be wise enough to avoid the Egyptian scenario and reach a peaceful settlement to their political differences,” he said.
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