Oussama Romdhani Looks at Tunisia’s Transition on Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab blog, Cites IRI Poll

Embracing Enemies in Tunisia
Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab blog
By Oussama Romdhani

On May 1, Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly approved a measure that could well prove to be one of the key milestones of the country’s transition to democracy. In the course of their deliberations over a new electoral law, the members of the assembly voted down a bill that would have barred former senior members of the government and ruling party of ex-President Ben Ali from running in future elections. Had it passed, the exclusion law would not have necessarily changed the balance of power, since few former senior officials are actually expected to run for seats in next elections. But by depriving them of their full civil rights, the law would have transformed veterans of the old regime into political martyrs, discrediting the two leading parties’ claims of commitment to an inclusive transition.

Such a development would have also rekindled particularly painful memories for the leaders of the two main parties. Beji Caid Essebsi, the head of the secularist Nida Tounes Party (the “Call of Tunisia”), confesses to being still “traumatized” by the experience of violent strife in the mid-1950s, when sympathizers of then-President Habib Bourguiba and his rival Salah Ben Youssef engaged in bloody strife across Tunisian towns and villages. Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist Ennahda Party, says that he is unwilling to inflict the pain of exclusion on any group of Tunisians the way previous regimes inflicted it on Islamists after independence.

In the end, the majority of legislators voted against the exclusion law, giving a much-needed push to Tunisia’s halting process of political reconciliation — a process that has been aptly described by Kamel Morjane, a centrist politician, as the sine qua non for a successful transition. That boost is much needed. The transitional justice law hurriedly approved last December is legally flawed and does not provide a sound path toward reconciliation. Unless amended, it could spell trouble for the transition, believes Essebsi.

For the past three years, since the start of the uprising that toppled Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s dictatorship, Tunisia has been struggling to overcome the divide between proponents of the Islamist-led government and their secularist opponents. The two long years following the 2011 elections, which produced a coalition government led by Islamists, were marked by escalating hostilities between the rival camps. It took a number of serious incidents, including an attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis in September 2012, the assassination of two leftist politicians, bloody attacks on the army and National Guard troops, and other terrorist acts, for the contending parties to realize the country was sliding toward civil war.

At first, the Ennahda-led coalition tried to cling to its electoral legitimacy. The Islamists did not need long, however, to realize that the political landscape had changed since their accession to power in 2011. Ennahda found itself facing two new opposing blocs: the “Union for Tunisia,” with Essebsi’s Nida Tounes at its core, and the leftist “Popular Front,” around Hamma Hammami’s Workers’ Party. The risk of civil strife as a result of mounting domestic tensions, compounded by the negative example of the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts at hegemonic rule in Egypt, eventually convinced Ennahda to concede that it should leave power.

In the last few months, zero-sum politics have given way to consensus-based politics, especially between Ennahda and Nida Tounes. In October 2013, face-to-face negotiations between Essebsi and Ghannouchi smoothed the way for the resumption of a national dialogue between all political parties. The dialogue took place under the aegis of the country’s powerful trade unions as well as the business federation, the country’s main human rights advocacy group, and the lawyers’ union. Compromises allowed for the adoption of the constitution and the replacement of the ruling coalition by a technocratic government. For the majority of the politically exhausted population it meant the end of partisan squabbling, largely perceived as the main obstacle to stability and economic recovery.

Along the way, both of the leading parties have moved toward the center. The Islamists of Ennahda have distanced themselves from the Salafists while reigning in their own hard-liners. Nida Tounes has been successful in moderating the stands of its leftist allies. (Rejecting exclusion was a natural decision for Essebsi’s party, considering the predominance of former members of the Constitutional Democratic Rally, RCD, the ruling party of Ben Ali, in its rank-and-file.)

The transition’s chances dramatically improved when the two main camps, the “Islamists” and the “modernists,” agreed to end their “identity wars.” The two groups managed to reach agreement over the constitution last January only when they moved away from their previously irreconcilable positions over the role of sharia law and the status of women. Once Islamists stopped supporting the demands of their ultraconservative fringe, compromise became possible on both issues. The approved version of the constitution thus ultimately accommodated both a commitment to Arab-Islamic heritage and openness to foreign cultures. The final text upheld the status of Islam in the country as stipulated by the 1959 Constitution. But it also affirmed the notions of the “civil state” and gender equality. Secularists and liberals overcame their recurring nightmares about an Islamist takeover of society. Ever since leaving government, Islamist figures have been at pains to further reassure urban, middle-class Tunisians. Ennahda “has adopted a Tunisian instead of an Islamist lexicon,” says Rafaa Ben Achour, a constitutional law expert and leading member of Nida Tounes. Veteran Tunisia expert Francis Ghiles asserts that Ghannouchi has, since last fall, “behaved like he was being coached by an American consultant to sound like a European Christian Democrat.”

Zitoun defends the change in his party as a normal evolution. “We are not a static movement or a Sufi sect,” he says. But many of the “modernists” see that change as only tactical and believe Ennahda has yet to abandon its ambitions to “Islamize” society. Columnist Ziyed Krichen sees Ennahda in a stage between being a seventies’ type “Muslim Brotherhood movement” and ” a civil democratic formation akin to Christian democratic parties” that is still to take shape.

The May 1 vote demonstrates the extent to which the main political parties have fundamentally reassessed their priorities. Having stared into the abyss last summer, both Ennahda and Nida Tounes leaders now seem to consider stability and civic peace as crucial for the remainder of the transition. Had the proponents of the “exclusionist” position carried the vote, the likelihood of turbulence during the next stage of the transition would have been much greater.

Long-term stability will elude Tunisia unless its people and leaders can find their way to a new concept of authority that balances functional state institutions with respect for fundamental rights and freedoms. The country’s citizens have been ready for a freer environment for decades. As a former government official, I can say that it took Ben Ali barely a week after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi to admit — at least privately — that restrictive policies were untenable. Ironically, it was the hyper-concentration of power before the revolution that convinced Ben Ali’s supporters of the irreversibility of revolutionary change as soon as the former president left the scene. It was this awareness, some observers believe, that spared Tunisia the violence that beset other Arab Spring countries. According to a recent scholarly study on the fall of autocratic regimes, the less violence that occurs during the collapse of such a regime, the better the chances of democratization.

Adjustment to the abrupt shift from hyper-centralized government to unstructured freedom will still need time. The majority preference for “a democratic even if unstable government” has slightly increased since last year (from 52 percent to 53 percent), but no less than 40 percent of those surveyed still said they favored “an authoritarian regime.”

Nostalgia for the predictability of authoritarian rule is explainable. Tunisia has yet to embark on anything resembling a South African-style truth and reconciliation process, and as a result Tunisians have experienced only a systematic demonization of the old regime. The public has never truly understood how the Ben Ali political system functioned and malfunctioned in the past. As the deteriorating security situation and falling standards of living discredited Tunisia’s new governments, it was hardly surprising that some people on the fringes of society sought solutions to their predicaments in previous eras. The desire to seek comfort in the past will dissipate, presumably, as the transition advances. But comparing nostalgia for authoritarian times in “Arab Spring” countries to the mood in Eastern European nations after the fall of the Berlin Wall is misleading. Former communist nations in Europe never suffered from the shallowness of democratic culture, the exacerbation of regional and tribal conflicts, or the specific socio-economic difficulties that face post-authoritarian Arab societies today.

After overcoming the initial doctrinal and organizational confusion caused by the 2011 revolution, the state still has to adapt to new security challenges. Over the past six months, the security agencies and the judiciary have taken a more vigorous attitude in the fight against terrorism, which has done much to restore the credibility of the state on this score. (The photo above shows a member of the Tunisian special forces standing guard outside the National Constituent Assembly.) But security concerns continue to pose a serious challenge to Tunisia’s transition. In late May, terrorists staged a brazen attack on the minister of the interior’s own home in Kasserine, deeply shocking the public. The government will need time and effort to overcome past mistakes and garner resources.

If anti-terrorism policies before the revolution did not adequately take into consideration the regional dynamics of the problem, the attitude of governments after the revolution waivered –for far too long — between naiveté, imprudence, and outright mistakes. A glaring example was the 2011 decision to pardon hundreds of prisoners previously indicted on terrorism charges. This slippery slope led straight to the September 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis and the assassination of leftist leaders Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi in 2013. These acts of terror, which exacerbated political divides, dealt a near-fatal blow to the transition process.

The threat still posed by Ansar al-Sharia cannot be dismissed. Dismantling the remaining outposts of its support network will be arduous. A senior official at the prime minister’s office recently put the number of associations suspected of abetting extremism at 157. Fallout from Libya and Syria might haunt Tunisia for years to come. The authorities will definitely have to worry about Tunisian jihadists abroad as they start heading home. These include approximately 2,000 Tunisian fighters in Syria. Civil strife in Libya could jeopardize the stability of Tunisia even more than the already incurred loss of jobs and business opportunities there.

To no small measure, stability will depend on the ability of future governments to impulse economic growth and offset the socio-economic imbalances, which had been left to linger for decades. Ennahda’s withdrawal from power enabled the formation in January of a new, non-partisan government headed by former businessman Mehdi Jomaa, a development that encouraged cautious optimism. Even so, today 48 percent of Tunisians still believe the country is “headed in the wrong direction.” The majority of respondents cite economic and employment challenges as their main concern.

Most socio-economic problems will require medium- to long-term solutions and a few unpopular measures, as well. A 2013 Working Paper from the International Monetary Fund recognized that “weak transitional governments” may find it difficult to implement measures ensuring growth and stability of the economy. For this reason, politicians of various hues believe tackling the complex problems of the economy may require a broad coalition government for 5 to 10 years after elections.

Successive governments have found it difficult to put an end to illegal strikes and work stoppages, even though disruption of production has had serious economic consequences. The interruption of phosphate production in the southwest’s mining basin, for instance, has caused the state to lose nearly 1.5 billion dollars in revenue, as output dropped from 8 million tons in 2010 to 3 million tons in 2013. Public spending is no longer an option when it comes to appeasing social pressures. While previous governments increased price subsidies by 270 percent between 2010 and 2013, the current government is considering cutting them. Public sector hiring has ceased being an option, even if unemployment is currently at above 15 percent. The projected GDP growth rates of 2.8 percent in 2014 and 4.2 percent in 2015 will not be sufficient to absorb youth unemployment, and even less that of university graduates (situated today at nearly 32 percent).

The issue of development imbalances between regions of the country, which was among the main catalysts of the revolution, continues to pose a challenge to stability. A source of particular concern is the worsening unemployment problem for university graduates in a number of regions. Between 2010 and 2013, the rates of graduate unemployment in the governorates of Sidi Bouzid and Kebili have respectively increased from 41 percent to 57 percent and from 42 percent to 60.8 percent.

Despite Tunisia’s traditional narrative of religious and ethnic homogeneity, the problem of regional disparities might bring to the surface a latent situation of unsuspected heterogeneity. For Tunisians, it took the fraying of the security institutions and the de-inhibition of the media to discover that tribal loyalties are alive and well.

Economic prospects will eventually depend on the strength of Europe’s recovery and its willingness to help, as well as on other outside sources of support, including the United States. The international conference scheduled for next September to promote foreign investment in Tunisia could be a step in the right direction provided the event produces more tangible results than flowery speeches about the “birthplace of the Arab Spring.”

But despite all the daunting challenges, the odds remain in favor of Tunisia’s consolidation of democracy. The country’s traditions of moderation and pragmatism, its human development achievements since independence, and the international sympathy it has enjoyed since the revolution are great assets for the road ahead. More than anything else, however, the final outcome will hinge on the ability of politicians to see what they all have to gain from a true consolidation of the democratic transition.

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