North Africa, West Asia

Tunisia’s forthcoming elections: transition at risk and arms sales won’t rescue

The mounting social and security risks should prompt the west to engage with all segments of Tunisian society to thwart the rise of sectarianism and polarization, looming in the rest of the Middle East and North Africa.

Sarah Wolff
16 September 2014

Touring France and the United States this summer, Tunisian President Moncef Markouzi denounced the lack of support by western powers for his country’s democratization. After adopting one of the most progressive constitutions in the region and providing a true laboratory for Arab democratic transitions, Tunisia is disillusioned. Faced with economic and social risks combined with mounting geopolitical chaos and insecurity, as well as upcoming presidential and legislative elections, Tunisians feel that Europeans and Americans are leaving it in the lurch at a critical time.

Tunisia did it all: it resisted the call of Islamists to turn to the Sharia as a basis for legislation; it adopted a progressive constitution based on a compromise between Islamists and secularists which includes the principle of equality between women and men. Tunisia fulfils the four criteria of democratic transition identified by Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan, the gurus of democratic transitions and consolidation. Also, unlike its neighbours, it avoided political chaos when the Islamist party Ennahda stepped down from government following the assassinations of left-wing politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi. This pragmatic move by astute politicians allowed for a national dialogue which is headed by the main Tunisian labour union (Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail), the business and professional lobby (Union Tunisienne de l’Industrie, du Commerce et de l’Artisanat), the Tunisia League for the Defense of Human Rights, and the Lawyers Guild.   

Not all is rosy, however. This bustling laboratory for Arab democratic transitions has reached a deadlock. The present technocratic government of Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa has little legitimacy and limited means to tackle the deep political, economic and security challenges that face Tunisia. Politically, this autumn’s elections will be the first major implementation of the new constitution and are a litmus test case for the country’s political elites. The constitution is the result of a pragmatic yet fragile compromise among the different political factions that entails the new political order. Even though Ennahda announced it won’t be presenting a candidate in the presidential elections, it remains a major political force in the light of the upcoming legislative election. It also needs however to deal with its own internal contradictions, some factions contesting the historical compromise on the absence of reference to the Sharia in the Constitution. It has been accused of wooing the Salafists, who remain an important force.

Dialogue, although difficult, has been at the core of Tunisian’s democratic transition and is facilitated by a legislative election law that favours smaller parties and coalitional politics. Yet this political system is very fragile as it rests on a system which can lead to “cohabitation” with a president and a prime minister from two different parties and no political majority in parliament. A constitutional text is not enough; consensus and dialogue are the quintessential elements of a new social contract. Trust between the old guard and a new generation of politicians is flimsy as the debate on the draft Article 167 of the new law on the elections demonstrated. This article, rejected in the end, would have made members of the Rassemblement Constitutionel Démocratique (the party of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali), as well as officials who had responsibilities within the government of the old regime, ineligible.

Trust also needs to be consolidated across generations. The deep social issues confronting Tunisian youth which sparked the immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi have not been solved. In fact, they have worsened with the transition. Youth unemployment has reached 30% and the generational gap is widening. Social insecurity rises with prices and an inflation rate of 6%. In a recent poll conducted by the International Republican Institute, 58% of Tunisians described the June 2014 economic situation in Tunisia as ‘very bad, against 20% only in march 2011. Stress amongst the youth is leading to higher drug consumption made available through porous borders and trafficking. The Jasmine Revolution leaves this generation with a sour taste in their mouths. Failing to address the social and economic root causes of the revolution is a recipe for further instability. The desperate youth of Tunisia, like those in Morocco, Algeria, or Libya, is left with the dramatic prospect of becoming a harraga, one of those young people from North Africa who prefer to ‘burn’ their lives by crossing the Mediterranean Sea, accepting the risk of death in hopes of finding a better life in Europe.

Those who do not cross the Mediterranean might board on a flight to Syria. According to the Tunisian Ministry of Interior, 2,400 Tunisians went to fight in Syria, around 80% of them are fighting for ISIS. The return of those jihadists to Tunisia will pose a huge challenge to security forces and society. President Marzouki has urged the United States to sell Tunisia Black Hawks helicopters and other equipment to fight terrorism, noting that extremists could disrupt the democratic transition. Recent attacks from Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia, affiliated with al-Qaeda, are indeed troubling. To pursue counter-terrorism activities in the respect of the rule of law, however, Tunisia needs an independent judiciary and a reformed police, as well as a new counter-terrorism law. The 2003 anti-terrorist law that was in place to muzzle Ben Ali’s opposition is still the present legal basis. Even though a new draft law is under discussion in the National Constituent Assembly, Human Right Watch warns that it could be used to restrict the freedom of the press or assembly.

Europeans and Americans have supported Tunisia’s transition. Under the formula of “more for more” and “less for less,” the EU has rewarded the best students of democratic transition post-Arab Spring. The initial envelope of €240 million allocated to Tunisia for 2011-2013 was increased by €150 million to reach a total of €390 million. Most of the aid focuses on employment and the economy through budget support aid. A project on the reform of the judiciary is also under way. The EU has pragmatically engaged with the troika (the coalition government formed by Ennahda, the secular Congress for the Republic, the socio-democrat Ettakatol and the liberal Progressive Democratic Party) and the current government through a joint EU-Tunisia Task Force where it identified the main priorities and established the basis of a dialogue. The United States has allocated $450 million to Tunisia since 2011 and initiated a strategic dialogue in April 2014. It also heard Tunisian’s calls for more counter-terrorism equipment and cooperation, although many Tunisian officials insist the transition is at risk and that the security threat is imminent.

In order to focus on its own domestic priorities and avoiding an instability spillover from its neighboring countries, transatlantic partners need to provide Tunisia with secure regional geopolitics. Reestablishing the state in Libya, addressing the deep migratory and refugee crisis in the region, and sorting out the Syrian chaos are important steps in that direction. Arm sales however won’t alone secure Tunisia’s transition. Much more needs to be done. The mounting social and security risks should prompt the west to engage with all segments of Tunisian society to thwart the rise of sectarianism and polarization, looming in the rest of the Middle East and North Africa. Beyond the constitution and national unity, time has come to face the big domestic reforms.

Implementing the constitution, building key institutions such as the Constitutional Court, securing the independence of the judiciary, reforming the security sector, building the capacities of political parties, but above all boosting the economy, and creating jobs are crucial steps that will underpin the terms of a new social contract for Tunisia. Accelerating the negotiations on the Deep and Comprehensive Trade Agreement with the EU, starting negotiations on a US-Tunisia Free Trade Agreement while helping to reform the labor market would reassure investors and support the transition. Transitional aid and expertise respectful of the domestic political system is needed. Only then will we make sure that Tunisia’s exemplary road to democracy is a long-lasting effort and not only a blip in history. This would also be a win-win situation for American and European interests, making good on the promise of Barack Obama’s 2011 Cairo speech as well as the EU’s 2011 renewed Partnership for Democracy and Shared Prosperity with the Southern Mediterranean.

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