Tunisia: from dignity to disenchantment?

The pressure of participatory politics it taking its toll on Tunisia’s ruling Nahda party. Factions within the Nadha party are all the more prevalent after the resignation of Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali on 19 February. The Secretary General of Nahda relinquished his role as prime minister after failing to convince his party of a plan to unite Tunisia. Jebali proposed introducing a transitional technocratic government, following the assassination of secular leftist politician Chokri Belaid, leader of the small Democratic Patriotic Party on 6 February. Assassinations create power vacuums and prolong conflicts in states that lack adequate institutional buffers. By design, Tunisia no longer has a highly personalised (authoritarian) system of government. Post-revolutionary Tunisia’s stability is instead shored up by institutions, providing a greater political capability to meet shocks attempting to rupture the system. The assassination of secular leftist opposition leader Belaid, illustrates the polarisation of Tunisia’s body politic between religious and secular visions of Tunisia’s future - visions increasingly obscured by Tunisia’s struggling economy. The resignation of the prime minister reflects the schism between the traditionalist and the moderate elements of the Nahda party, led by Rashid Ghannouchi. Prime Minister Jebali’s technocratic governance plan for strengthening the consensus is a well-worn remedy for states with struggling economics and fractious politics. President Marzouki has asked Ali Larayedh, Interior Minister in the outgoing cabinet, to head the new government. Mr Larayedh, imprisoned for more than 15 years under the Ben Ali regime, is a hardliner affiliated with the Nadha party. Any form of political re-positioning points to efforts made by Tunisia’s new politicians to tackle the schism between religious and secular representatives, first elected on 23 October 2011. The political solution for Tunisia’s current predicament may involve the endorsement of a semi-voluntary coalition, with Nahda sharing one of the three core ministries (the Interior Ministry, Justice Ministry or Foreign Affairs Ministry) with one of the smaller parties. The more pressing issue lies in the polarisation of Tunisia’s people. Escalating tensions between secularists and Salafists threaten the increasingly tenuous ‘spirit of solidarity’ that underpinned the revolution. The ‘spirit of solidarity’ unified Tunisians demanding dignity, employment, political representation and free association. In the two years since the revolution the spirit is waning, as even the most sober of Tunisians’ economic expectations remain unmet. The escalation of violence in Tunisia is compounded by internal economic obstacles. During the December 2012 strikes in Tunisia’s interior, which is less developed, protestors’ calls for employment and development echoed protests first directed against the deposed Ben-Ali regime. Unmet expectations have re-mobilised a network of Nahda government supporters, originally formed by citizens as volunteer patrols during the revolution, now claiming to protect the values of the uprising. The Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution (Ligues de la Protection de la Revolution) claims critics of the government are ‘counter-revolutionary’ and are implicated in violence against the opposition Nidaa party and the beating of Said Al-Aidi, Employment Minister in the post-revolutionary transitional authority and leader of the secular liberal Jomhouri party. The role of these organisations will shape the run up to Tunisia’s elections, scheduled for June 2013 though more than likely postponed. Tunisia’s transition began with well-constructed institutional reforms, giving all Tunisians a say in their future. Tunisia’s new freedom of association law was established to counter the capacity of extremist groups to spoil the efforts for an equitable, transparent and accountable regime change. However, in the absence of economic development, good institutions are not a sufficient defence from instability. The International Monetary Fund's $1.78bn loan to Tunisia is on hold and instability has lowered Tunisia’s credit rating. Tolerance and the accommodation of differences initially enabled Tunisia to integrate important political actors into the transitional process, hold elections and thus far to navigate the divisions between secular and religious Tunisians. The question now is whether diverse groups are equally able to access the new institutional frameworks for public participation created in addition to new legally enshrined rights. Tunisia’s new prime minister will need to ensure that religious and liberal groups are both making use of the institutional and legal channels for consultation and communication established during the ‘spirit of solidarity’ created in the midst of the Arab Spring. Our new report, Transforming Tunisia: The role of civil society in Tunisia’s transition (right), analyses the activity and influence of civil society organisations in Tunisia over the last two years, identifying the implications and opportunities for the broader Middle East and North Africa region. You can read it here.