Tunisia’s Politicians Play On

Recent headlines have heralded the demise of Tunisia’s governing Islamist party, Ennahda. In fact, this interpretation is misleading. Ennahda and its coalition partners committed to talks and an opposition-defined roadmap which enjoins the current government to resign three weeks from the beginning of discussions.

Recent headlines have heralded the demise of Tunisia’s governing Islamist party, Ennahda. In fact, this interpretation is misleading. Ennahda and its coalition partners committed to talks and an opposition-defined roadmap which enjoins the current government to resign three weeks from the beginning of discussions. But while Ennahda has accepted the principle of stepping down in favor of a new caretaker government, party leaders say that this timeline is still subject to negotiation. So, despite deep ideological rifts, continuing economic woes, and regional pressures, Tunisia’s political game continues.

To understand Tunisia’s current political state, it is helpful to distinguish the public’s latent disenchantment, frustration and anger from the specific triggers that, in the last several months, sparked a series of demonstrations, moved large institutional players clearly into the opposition camp, and motivated opposition politicians to push for an end to Ennahda’s rule and the dissolution of Tunisia’s only elected body, the National Constituent Assembly.

Latent anger stems from high unemployment levels, the rising costs of living, systemic and petty corruption present at all levels of society, deficiencies in public security, and the seeming inability or unwillingness of the government or the acting legislature to craft and implement effective solutions to these problems. These failings are glaring given that economic injustice sparked the revolution; now, some figures show that unemployment and perceived corruption are higher than under the former regime (although the former regime manipulated statistics for its own benefit).

Several factors have contributed to the current government’s failure. First, members of the ruling Ennahda party had no prior experience with the levers of state control, a novelty after years in opposition and, often, in prison. Second, there is deep distrust between Ennahda and state institutions, bureaucrats, and powerful business interests that worked with or served the previous regime. Third, Ennahda has, at times, put deeply divisive ideological issues that challenge the traditional state conception of secularism on the national political agenda. And fourth, Ennahda has been slow to robustly challenge and clearly distinguish itself from violent Islamists.

Despite these serious problems and the ineffectiveness of the Ennahda-led government in adequately solving them, a new, immediate political crisis has appeared in Tunisia, spurred on by opposition parties that are even less popular, according to recent polling. Less than one month after the July 3 coup in Egypt and the Egyptian military’s crackdown on the deposed Muslim Brotherhood, Tunisian opposition politician Mohammed Brahmi was assassinated. According to the Minister of the Interior, Lotfi Ben Jeddou, the CIA had informed his ministry of the assassination plot. However, he said that the bureaucrats below him did not pass this information up to him, and nothing was done to prevent the plot.

The opposition’s immediate calls for the government to step down and the withdrawal of opposition candidates from the assembly failed. By mid-September, given no further high-profile lapses in security, street support for bringing down the government had begun to wane. Shifting to an alternative tactic, Tunisia’s powerful labor union, the UGTT, and the employer’s union, UTICA put forward a new “roadmap.” This roadmap was sold as a way to break the political deadlock, but the most important stipulation included bringing down the government. While Ennahda accepted the plan, their statements regarding the specifics of the plan have remained largely unspecific. If this roadmap fails to achieve the anti-governmental aims of the opposition, they may revert to old tactics.

Wariness on both sides is understandable. The UGTT and opposition are not certain that Ennahda intends to give up power, since they have not publicly and definitively accepted the parameters of the timeline. Instead, Ennahda emphasizes other parts of the roadmap, particularly progress on the adoption of the constitution, the electoral law and commission and agreement on a new government.

This approach serves to protect Ennahda. A poll conducted by Zogby Research Services right after the assassination of Brahmi shows that 60 percent think that the Egyptian coup will have some sort of a political impact on Tunisia. In light of this, Ennahda may be concerned that the democratic process itself and the party’s future potential to participate in governance could be undermined if the party were to publicly embrace a deadline for stepping down before securing election guarantees. Moreover, the UGTT, which has billed itself as a mediator between the government and opposition forces, is not a neutral broker. The union, which never called for a general strike under the former regime, called for one after Ennahda had accepted its calls for another national dialogue.

There has been consistent pressure on Ennahda to engage in a national dialogue dictated by the UGTT and the opposition rather than through the democratically-elected (and Ennahda-dominated) Constituent Assembly. However, Ennahda may also see some benefits to conceding to this new channel. They may see it as an opportunity to break the deadlock and finally finish the constitution. The proposal’s stipulation that a caretaker government will govern until elections could also put Ennahda out of the national spotlight before Tunisians vote, potentially serving to make sure that people do not blame them solely for the failings of the past two years. Yet Ennahda has so far acted cautiously, and it is unlikely they will agree to a caretaker government if it consists of people whom they deem overly partisan or hostile.

Although the current political stagnation carries its own risks, as long as dialogue continues, Tunisians may be on the way to averting a more disastrous crisis. But stakes remain high. The Zogby poll shows that 64 percent of Tunisians think the country is moving in the wrong direction, while 55 percent say they are disappointed in how the revolution is playing out. Given these disappointing numbers, it is important that the national dialogue be transparent. Whether transparency of high-level talks will be enough for a populace that feels deeply neglected by virtually all of its national leaders remains unclear.

Fadil Aliriza is a freelance journalist and writer currently based in Tunis, Tunisia. He has written for Foreign Policy, The Independent, and Guernica. On Twitter: @fadilaliriza.