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Tunisia’s Troubled Transition Turns a Corner

  • Mohamed Elshinnawi

Tunisian Islamist Ennahda party leader Rached Ghannouchi (L) greets former Prime Minister Rachid Sfar (C) during a session of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), on October 23, 2012 in Tunis, (FETHI BELAID / AFP)
After months of turmoil, the assassinations of two leading secular politicians and a sinking economy, Tunisia’s leading political actors have managed to achieve something that has eluded governments elsewhere in the region – a political compromise between secular and Islamist political parties that puts in place a caretaker government designed to steer Tunisia towards elections next year.

Tunisian Islamists under the banner of the Ennahda party and under the leadership of Rachid Ghannouchi won 40 percent of the vote in post-revolutionary parliamentary elections in October 2011. But disenchantment soon set in with the Islamists seeming inability to manage a modern state, and anger over their perceived tolerance towards extremists blamed for assassinating secular politicians, Chokri Balaid and Mohammed Brahmi earlier this year.

To defuse the crisis a national dialogue process was agreed to in September. Intensive talks between Ennahda leader Ghannouchi and Beji Caid Essebsi, a former prime minister who emerged as the leader of Tunisia’s secular forces with his Nidaa Tounes party finally led to a political deal on December 15th.

Now a caretaker government will lead Tunisia and agreement was reached on laying the groundwork for establishing a truth commission, and addressing extrajudicial killings, torture and rape that occurred under previous governments.

Osama Romdhani, former Tunisian Minister of Information, says many Tunisians are breathing a collective sigh of relief.

“The latest public opinion poll shows that 63 percent of Tunisians feel the selection of a technocrat to lead the new government provided a glimmer of hope,” Romdhani said. However he said there are challenges ahead.

“The socio-economic problem which has sparked the Tunisian uprising in December 2010 is still haunting youth and university graduates, with an unemployment rate as high as 22 percent in some areas,” Romdhani said.

He argues that a weak economy can’t create jobs and security issues have hurt Tunisia's all-important tourism sector.

“Proliferation of weapons from Libya contributed to a wider security gap that negatively impacted tourism as a major source of national income,” he said.

Extremism a danger for the future

Romdhani points to another serious challenge facing Tunisia.

“Extremist Salafi groups that resorted to assassinations of political leaders are a serious threat to any attempt to attract investment and tourism that are crucial to encounter the economic problem,” he said.

Marina Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, is more hopeful about tackling the economic challenges.

“There are some signs of progress. Tourism is picking up, and the Tunisian export sector can recover if the economic situation in Europe improves,” she said. But Ottaway doesn’t believe that Tunisia can expect much help from the European Union, Tunisia’s major economic partner, which is experiencing its own economic crisis.

Ottaway argues that in spite of the challenges, Tunisia’s transition remains the most successful of the Arab Spring.

“It is the only transition that has the hope of succeeding in generating a reasonably democratic government.”

Marwan Muasher, Vice President of Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace is cautiously optimistic about prospects for a successful transition in Tunisia.

"The process is more promising but still under threat," he said. "2014 will most likely see the approval of a new constitution and the holding of parliamentary elections. The ruling Islamists face a real danger of losing to a secular coalition in those elections."

Tunisian transition as a model

David Pollock, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy says Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, is now offering the region another valuable lesson.

“Probably it is the first time ever - anywhere - in which an Islamist party has voluntarily ceded political power, without civil war, mass violence, or military intervention of any kind,” he said.

The fact that the Tunisian army is less involved in Tunisian politics and in its economy is a major factor, says Pollack, in avoiding what has taken place in Egypt.

Ottaway says she doesn’t expect that any potential success of Tunisia’s transition will have any positive impact on Egypt.

“What happened in Egypt is a military coup that produced a government that doesn’t tolerate any dissenting voice whether from right, center or left,” Ottaway said.

But Pollock says that Tunisia's largely secular society - at least by regional standards - makes it a possible model for its neighbors.

“Other Arab societies -- especially those that followed Tunisia's example of revolution - can begin moving toward a more promising future if they learn the lessons of this new Tunisian model as well,” Pollack said.

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