North Africa, West Asia

Tunisia’s political impasse

Omar Belhaj Salah

Today progress made in the dialogue between the Troika and the opposition relies largely on how far Ennahdha goes in acknowledging Nidaa Tounes as a legitimate political entity.

Omar Belhaj Salah
7 October 2013

It’s easy to be depressed about Tunisia these days. The dream of a free and prosperous society fuelled by the January 2011 revolution seems to have been suspended. A relatively widespread feeling of dissatisfaction - measured through a 2013 UN report and in-depth PEW polling - characterizes the general mood among the people today and could be interpreted as a sign that Tunisia’s transition is stalling.

Indeed, soon after the assassination of the pan-Arab opposition figure Mohammed Brahmi on July 25, existing tensions between opposition parties and the ruling Troika mushroomed into a grave political crisis. In an attempt to smooth over the conflict the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), together with UTICA (the employers’ union), the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH), and the National Bar Association initiated a series of indirect shuttle negotiations between the opposition and the Troika in response to UGTT’s 29 July “initiative to surmount the political crisis”.

Both camps are now striving to move towards an agreement involving the resignation of the Islamist-led troika government. Negotiations are circling around different ideas about how and when that government would resign, and to what extent the sitting government would be replaced. The opposition is pressing for total replacement of the sitting government with a non-partisan “technocrat” one, which, according to the opposition, will pursue a “salvation”-style rescue mission of liberating Tunisia from its security and economic straits.

In theory, Ennahdha has agreed on making such concessions to the opposition and approved the creation of a mini-caretaker government which would focus on preparing for the elections. In practice, however, Ennahda maintains that any such plan must be in harmony with the law on the provisional organization of public authorities, which grants the prerogative of appointing the prime minister to the majority party in the NCA. This law was recorded in the so-called “small constitution,” a five-page document adopted by the National Constituent Assembly in December 2011 to frame its work and prerogatives and those of the government and the presidency.

Ennahdha insists that a new government should be grounded in legal legitimacy. Moreover, it holds that forming an apolitical government would marginalize Tunisia’s October 2011 electoral experience, dissolving a democratically elected government and replacing it with the old top-down ruling style of the past. This would effectively turn Tunisia’s political clock back to January 13, 2011 -- the night preceding Ben Ali’s escape to Saudi Arabia. 

Conversely, the opposition argues that no legitimacy derived from an electoral victory could ride out the murder of political leaders for which it claims Ennahdha is responsible, or the incompetence it argues Ennahda has displayed in running the state. “Their compliance with political violence and perpetual attempts to ‘conquer the state apparatuses’ is conspicuous and intolerable,” said Hamma Hammami, spokesman for a major opposition front, Jabha Chaabia, in an address to protesters in front of the NCA building last month. “We will continue to mobilize the people to occupy governorates and bring down the traitorous government and Constituent Assembly.”

Ironically, the country was in a similar position just seven months ago, and Ennahda largely conceded to the opposition’s demands. In February of this year, following the assassination of leftist politician Chokri Belaid, the opposition succeeded in pushing one government into resignation and forced Ennahdha to make tough concessions and ultimately withdrew its ministers from heading the foreign, justice and interior ministries. Remarkably though, the quota of political pressure on Ennahdha did not abate as the opposition kept boosting more demands adding more confusion to the ongoing struggle for a genuine consensus with the Troika.

Led by Nidaa Tounes, the opposition’s driving rhetoric against the government seems to bear more blanket accusations than constructive criticism. Its motto, even in relatively stable times before the political assassinations and now as UGTT attempts to mediate the situation has been “a government of failure.” The Troika dismisses this phrase as unfounded and irresponsible, arguing that such accusations of failure should be grounded in objective assessment, which, it believes, the opposition has so far failed to undertake. For the opposition, however, this has become a highly powerful, oft-repeated mantra, based more on rejection of the Troika than engagement and potential compromise. Such mantras have contributed to a charged and polarized atmosphere in Tunisia that has made dialogue much more difficult.

These polarizing portrayals have existed on both sides, though. Nidaa Tounes, now a well respected party and certainly the most popular among the opposition, was publically caricatured by Ennahdha, not long ago, as an evil spinoff of Ben Ali’s old RCD machine. “Nidaa Tounes is more dangerous than extreme Salafism… fighting religious extremism is easier than fighting the phenomenon of the reemergence of RCD, which will find its way through Nidaa Tounes,” stated Ennahdha president Rached Ghannouchi last October. Today, however, Ennahda has softened its discourse on Nidaa Tounes. In a televised interview on August 25, Ghannouchi said that, “together with Ennahdha, [Nidaa Tounes] is the biggest party in the country, and the state cannot be run properly unless its biggest political parties are in agreement.”

This softened position on Nidaa Tounes is now the subject of contentious debate between Ennahdha’s leadership and its grassroots devotees. Grassroots members and supporters of Ennahda adamantly refuse rapprochement with Beji Caid Essebsi and his party, in view of its assumed strong ties with individuals whom they think were politically and personally responsible for torturing, repressing and killing many of them within the last fifty years.

Despite all the talk of negotiations with Nidaa Tounes, and its internal vulnerabilities, Ennahdha’s biggest vulnerability has been its failure – either because of lack of will or inability -- to push the judiciary into faster substantial reforms. Ennahdha has likewise failed to reverse the rotten arsenal of laws through which those past abuses were carried out, leaving Tunisia’s old regime-era penal code intact.

On the surface, restoring friendly relations with Nidaa Tounes will calm the situation politically and would also foster an environment more conducive to security and economic stability. A major beneficiary of political agreement will also likely be the old, Ben Ali-affiliated network of interests – a network which has never been efficiently dismantled. What sustained decades of dictatorship in Tunisia was not just the dictator and his top-down apparatus, but also the gradual formation of a layer of individuals below the state level who willingly learned to leech off and be loyal to a corrupt system that served their interests.

They learned to accept tyrannical governance, embrace and perpetuate nepotism, and prop up an unquestioningly obedient bureaucracy. People like Fouad Mebazaa, Hamed Karoui , Abd Wahab Abdallah, Faouizi Loumi, and Essebsi himself - who admitted to having falsified the elections while he was Minister of Interior - often served as the guardians of authoritarianism and watchdogs of a culture that promoted loyalty to despots.

Today the speed of progress between the Troika and the opposition relies largely on how far Ennahdha goes in acknowledging Nidaa Tounes as a legitimate political entity. In other words, how much legitimacy Ennahdha is willing to cede to Nidaa Tounes before the next elections and before trying to pass the transitional justice law which would launch comprehensive investigations into past crimes.

Since the very first days of the revolution, the success or failure of Tunisia’s transition has been a fierce battle against time. The recurrent incidents of insecurity, economic instability and social unrest constantly challenge the people’s patience, plunging them into speculation over the country’s elite capacity to realize the revolution’s core demands: employment, freedom and dignity.

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