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Tunisia’s political dysfunction rests on a fierce power struggle

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The political players (the ones in government and the opposition) should accelerate their efforts today towards reaching consensus and putting Tunisia above everything else.

Meriem Dhaouadi
4 February 2013

“They do not care about us; all they care about is power.  To test a man’s character give him money or power; and in our context, I say - to test a politician’s honesty, vote for him, grant him power”. This was said to me by one of the passengers in a shared taxi in Tunis during a brief chat. Politics have become so embedded in the everyday lives of Tunisians following the revolution. Today attention is drawn to the cabinet reshuffle. The sharing of power seems a hard task at the dawn of the revolution in the North African country. Popular feeling about the country‘s prospects is overladen with uncertainty and cynicism. The sense of optimism I felt two years ago fades with almost each passing day (a fact that many fear to reveal less they are accused of belonging to the remnants of the old regime.)

The failed cabinet reshuffle

The failure of any outcome to the cabinet reshuffle in Tunisia following lengthy talks reflects mounting rivalry among the political actors over power and key posts in the government. In the midst of our economic instability, growing violence and extremism, gathering frustration in the marginalized regions, the miserable conditions of thousands of unemployed, the battle among those who govern us is over power sharing. The absence of any willingness to compromise especially inside the governing troika will eventually lead to a political crisis.  

After months of unproductive negotiations, the obsession with expanding their own power and prestige seems to be the chief motivation of all the political actors. When it comes to Ennahda (the ruling Islamist party), they refuse pointblank to give up key ministry posts, notably the ministry of justice led by Noureddine Bhiri, and the ministry of foreign affairs led by  Rafik Abdessalem who is son-in-law to Ennahda leader, Rached Gannouchi, and was recently involved in the Sheraton gate scandal.

The seeds of division inside the ruling party have become apparent between the moderate and the hardline elements. While the prime minister seeks a more inclusive government in the next cabinet reshuffle, hoping to give some key ministerial portfolios to political allies or to independents, the more conservative members of the party reject such a compromise.

Resignation fever

Meanwhile Lotfi Zitoun (an adviser to Jebali the prime minister) and the presidential adviser Samir Ben Amor have resigned as the country plunges into a crisis. The Congress for the Republic party (CPR) one of the partners in the coalition government asked for the replacement of Foreign Affairs and the Justice Ministers.  President Marzouki sent a message threatening to quit his position as president if negotiations over the government reshuffle failed to involve such measures. He has no intention to remain the president of a republic governed by one party (the Ennahda party).  "If Ennahda does not change its foreign and justice ministers within a week, the Congress for the Republic will withdraw its ministers from the government and President Marzouki may resign from his post," said Mohammed Abbou, secretary-general of the Congress for the Republic. For Ettakatol, another left-leaning force in the troika, the justice ministry is the main bone of contention. He argues that Nourredine Bhiri, the current justice minister, must be replaced or the party will quit the government, its spokesman Mohamed Bennour said.

Crime and violence

Amid the resulting paralysis, on February 1, the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution (LPR) prevented a meeting organized by Al-Joumhouri party ( an opposition party) from taking place in Jendoubaa, a city located in the northwest of Tunisia.  A group of LPR members formed a human chain to prevent the citizens from accessing the hotel in which the meeting would take place. The rising violence against opposition parties sends a gloomy psychological message that the political leadership is week and quite unable to curb such undemocratic and intimidating practices.

Members of the committee for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice attacked the local Islamic radio station headquarters Zitouna FM on Saturday, in an attempt to sack the director of the station. This was yet another incident that further scared the Tunisian people, who have harboured a fear of the proliferation of organized crime and violence. In addition, there appears to be a new wave of attacks on Sufi shrines, and thirty-four of these mausoleums have been attacked in eight months. Radicalism is on the rise as the power struggle deepens and government institutions are seen to be weak.

Recent debates over the cabinet reshuffle demonstrate once again that the current political forces in Tunisia champion their own interests over democratic reforms indispensable for the maintenance of  stability in this critical phase of transition. The political players (the ones in government and the opposition) should accelerate their efforts today towards reaching consensus and putting Tunisia above everything else; the political crisis is born of the fact that our major political parties are motivated by greed for political power.

Look at where we are now! Tunisians see their dreams, their sacrifices and their future collapsing. The optimism that pushed Tunisians in massive numbers to the streets two year ago is fading and, pessimism is reigning. Wake up Tunisians before it is too late.

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