Challenges to Tunisia’s Transition to Democracy

Nearly six years after the widespread wave of its “Jasmine Revolution,” Tunisia is often praised for its drive toward pluralism, inclusive politics, and prevention of a political impasse or derailment into violence. The cradle of the so-called “Arab Spring” in 2011 forged what was deemed an exceptional political transition in a region entangled in open-ended and complex civil wars and foreign military interventions, from Libya to Yemen and Syria. There was a common assumption among observers that the case of Tunisia was promising in its peaceful shift toward democratization since, as Marwan Muasher has noted, “the smallest country that started it all is the one undergoing the smoothest transition.”

Since the fall of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (1987-2011), Tunisians have embraced high expectations of reform and economic development under three consecutive presidents, seven prime ministers, and numerous cabinet reshuffles. The country has flirted with several variations of coalition governments between the three leading political camps: Ennahda (Renaissance) led by Rached Ghannouchi; Congress for the Republic, founded by human rights activist Moncef Marzouki; and Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia), founded by the former prime minister and now president, Béji Caïd Essebsi, on April 20, 2012 as a regrouping coalition of former members of the deposed Ben Ali’s Constitutional Democratic Rally, members of the Destour Party led by the late president, Habib Bourguiba, in addition to liberals and enthusiasts for secularism.

Early Turbulent Times

This climate of pluralism and free debate has energized the role of local civil society in stimulating nonviolent shifts of power while capitalizing on public grievances. By mid-2013, Tunisia was embroiled in an internal political crisis amid protests against poor economic performance of the troika government, led by Ennahda, and the assassination of two prominent opposition figures: Chokri Belaid on February 6 and Mohamed Brahmi on July 25. Large street demonstrations demanded the resignation of Ennahda ministers. A new civil society alliance known as the National Dialogue Quartet emerged as the national savior of a new Tunisia to prevent a drift into civil war. It included four civil organizations: the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Human Rights League, and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers. Their intervention saved Tunisia’s democracy from a possible scenario of destructive power politics and chaos in the battle between Islamism and liberal democracy. For that, they received the Nobel Peace Prize for 2015 for serving “as a mediator and driving force to advance peaceful democratic development in Tunisia with great moral authority.” Importantly, in the words of Nobel Committee Chairwoman Kaci K. Five, “We want to prove that it is possible for Islamist and secular political movements to work together in the best interests of the people.”

At the time, heated multilateral discussions in the Tunisian parliament about the draft of the new constitution resulted in several major concessions by Islamist Ennahda legislators on disputes regarding religion in politics. As a result, Article 2 of the constitution was written to state that “Tunisia is a civil state based on citizenship, the will of the people, and the supremacy of law.” Effectively, the country settled on a middle-way agreement between the Islamists and the secularists where “it could be said the modern view has triumphed over the traditional one.”

However, by early September 2017, the momentum of reform was shaken up by three controversial decisions made by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed with the blessing of the 90-year-old president Essebsi: 1) the appointment of some of Ben Ali’s former ministers to a new cabinet after a government reshuffle; 2) the adoption of the so-called “administrative reconciliation” law by the parliament regarding corruption during Ben Ali’s presidency; and 3) the postponement, once again, of the municipal election. Earlier in 2017, Essebsi had made big strides by supporting the idea of granting women equal rights in inheritance and legitimizing mixed marriages between Tunisian women and non-Muslim citizens of other countries. He was heralded as the leader of reformism and “the good Arab revolutionary of the moment” after his victory by 55.68 percent of the vote in the 2014 election.

As a result of his government’s recent decisions however, Essebsi’s popularity became subject to growing popular criticism. He is now perceived to be returning to the politics of the ousted regime and suspected of seeking to abort the famous Jasmine Revolution. The question remains whether his new moves will undo his reformist plans of the past three years, and to what extent the popular demand of government accountability may undermine his legitimacy to govern in the eyes of Tunisians. Most Tunisians now are concerned about the growing control of the government and express skepticism about the trajectory of Essebsi’s policies in dragging the country into a political grey zone with the return of Ben Ali’s men to power.

Politics Taking a U-turn to Ben Ali’s Era?

After consultations during the summer with leaders of political parties and workers’ unions, including the UGTT, Prime Minister Chahed moved swiftly to introduce two major decisions in parliament, three days apart. He announced a cabinet reshuffle and replaced 13 ministers, nearly half of his 27-member government, after just over one year of assuming the premiership in the country. The new reshuffle included several key portfolios including defense, finance, and interior. However, controversy circulated around several new ministers: Ridha Chalghoum (finance), Lotfi Braham (interior), Slim Chaker (health), Abdelkrim Zbidi (defense), and one of Chahed’s economic advisors, Taoufik Rajhi, as the new minister of economic reforms. These appointments have been contested since Chalghoum had served under the ousted president, Ben Ali, and Zbidi had the same defense portfolio when Essebsi served as prime minister in 2011.

This move was perceived as a dubious tactic to expand the influence of Nidaa Tounes by appointing Essebsi’s men in key positions, earning Essebsi the title of “the president who pulls the strings.” Prime Minister Chahed sought to justify the reshuffle by the need for pragmatic leadership and a “’war government’ that will continue to ‘fight against terrorism, corruption, unemployment and regional inequality’.” Chahed’s new cabinet aims to reduce the public wage bill from 14 percent (one of the highest ratios in the world) to around 12.5 percent.

President Essebsi also seized the opportunity to charge the current political system of “paralyzing practically the government’s actions,” while arguing that, “It is time to evaluate the current constitutional system in order to rectify the shortcomings and overcome the obstacles contained in the Constitution.” The Tunisian opposition remains concerned about the probability that Essebsi’s attempt to consolidate power may target the parliament as well. Ironically, his statement represented an early storm before the arrival of an alarming political earthquake.

Above Accountability

During the debate over the legitimacy of the newly reappointed ministers, a controversial “Economic Reconciliation” bill, introduced in two previous amended drafts since 2015, was passed into law in the parliament on September 14 with a 119 to 90 vote. It asserts that civil servants “who claim they did not see personal financial gain will be eligible for full amnesty, while those who profited will be allowed to repay the state some portion of their self-identified, ill-gotten gains, and escape prosecution. The government will drop all current prosecutions of related cases.”

Instead of adhering to the work of the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) set up in 2014, the new law established a “reconciliation commission,” with a nine-month mandate only, to oversee the desired transitional justice process by government-appointed members. Soufiane Toubal, head of the Nidaa Tounes caucus in the parliament, defended the adoption of the new law for the sake of “a tolerant Tunisia that unites all its children and bans hate and rancor.” By the same token, President Essebsi maintained the argument that it would “improve the investment climate and help the country move forward after a rocky several years following the 2011 Arab Spring revolution.”

However, the Economic Reconciliation law, also called the “administrative reconciliation” law, has triggered another row since it ignores the promise of transparency and accountability and undermines the work of the Truth and Dignity Commission. Salwa El Gantri, head of the International Center for Transitional Justice’s (ICTJ) office in Tunis, points out that “Tunisians knew they had to make a clean break with the past by enacting laws that would ensure abuses would never happen again and hold perpetrators accountable.” Several international organizations and advocacy groups have criticized the new law for its multiple flaws. One of them is the possibility that the “reconciliation commission” may become a de facto alternative justice tool to be manipulated by the president’s men and his Nidaa Tounes backers by eclipsing the work of the TDC. Human Rights Watch expressed concern the new law might “put an end to all that by taking over the roles of both the commission and the justice system.”

Investigations are still underway into the disappearance of large amounts from the Tunisian treasury before and during 2011. The ICTJ has cautioned against the negative impact of the new law on the legal and investigative assistance provided by foreign governments. This cooperation has led to the freezing of at least $68 million in assets in Canada and Switzerland and the return of $28 million in assets from Lebanon. Other legal activists have captured the irony of the new law that is sought by a declared “reformist” government. For instance, David Tolbert, president of ICTJ, argues that, “The law emboldens the corrupt, the powerful and the well connected, while undermining the laws and institutions put in place since the fall of Ben Ali to fight widespread corruption.”

Essebsi’s presidency has also been criticized for postponing the municipal election for the third time so far. It was originally scheduled for September 18 and postponed to December 17, before Tunisia’s Independent High Authority for the Elections confirmed March 25, 2018 as the final date. The loud outcry against the government’s tactics and rampant popular cynicism illustrate that the majority of Tunisians believe the government puts partisan gain above national interests. For instance, Hamma Hammami, leftist leader of the Popular Front, maintains that “Essebsi is today the head of the counter-revolution along with Rached Ghannouchi [Ennahda’s leader].” Local civil rights activists have contested what they perceive as a “step backwards” in Tunisia’s transition to democracy.

Possible Ramifications

The growing popular resentment of President Essebsi’s current policies showcases a new low in post-uprising Tunisia. It has damaged his political capital and trust among Tunisians. Recent surveys have revealed a decreasing approval rating of both President Essebsi and Prime Minister Chahed, at below 20 percent this year. Public opinion also remains cynical about the government’s claim of efficiency and pragmatism. Tunisia now faces a hard choice between stability and justice in handling its legacy of corruption and power abuse. A sizable majority of 89 percent of Tunisians believe corruption in Tunisia is worse now than it was prior to 2011. Consequently, President Essebsi and his Nidaa Tounes Party are running the risk of deepening disarticulation between the government and young Tunisians who are frustrated by the lack of economic reform and agitated about partisan politics. They belong to a generation that is breaking long-held fears, but they remain captive to long-term unemployment.

President Essebsi’s determination to solidify his grip on power will undermine his legitimacy to govern in the long run. Considering the sequence of three divisive and disturbing decisions in less than a month (a cabinet reshuffle, the “economic reconciliation” law, and the third postponement of the long-awaited municipal election), he is sacrificing his stature of a reformist statesman for quasi-Machiavellian tactics and partisan gains. These measures, which could be a final blow to the Jasmine Revolution, are fueling resistance among the political and intellectual elite as well. The door remains open for Tunisian youth to resort back to street demonstrations rather than to wait for the next legislative elections to vote for change.

It may be high time to do away with the general assumptions that Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution continues to unfold smoothly and that the country is the exceptional oasis of “peaceful transition.” To help avoid probable escalation of instability in Tunisia, the international community should take seriously these early warning signs of popular discontent and hopelessness. The United States and the European Union can urge President Essebsi to reconsider his pursuit of consolidation of power and avoid the unwelcome reemergence of Ben Ali’s men in public office. They can also provide expert recommendations about proper implementation of the transitional justice strategy without rushing to grant what are mockingly labeled as “amnesty certificates.”

The United States and the European Union should also empower local civil society organizations to continue their mediating role between state and society. These civic entities remain the most credible players in Tunisian public life and should have more support in institutionalizing accountability, transparency, free debate, and moral politics. Furthermore, Tunisia is in dire need of foreign economic assistance and investment to help alleviate the dilemmas of unemployment and poverty and to curb the trend toward radicalization.

Dr. Mohammed Cherkaoui is professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University and former member of the United Nations’ Panel of Experts. He sits on the Academic Advisory Board, and is a Guest Analyst at Arab Center Washington DC