The stakes in the ongoing struggle to forge a new government in Tunisia could not be greater. The country’s economy remains fragile and vulnerable to domestic or international shocks. With a six percent inflation rate and 15 percent unemployment (and double that for youth and women), it is hardly surprising that some 80 percent of the public believe that the country is going “in the wrong direction.” Moreover, with public expenditures standing at 30 percent of GDP and an external debt of 85 percent of GDP (which is double the rate in 2011), the prospects for meaningful economic growth are slim and thus unemployment will probably increase.
In the wider region, Tunisia faces growing threats, not least of which results from Turkey’s decision to send troops into Libya. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan’s recent effort to secure Tunisian President Kais Saied’s support for this potentially dangerous initiative underscores the multiple pressures on the country’s new president.
Given these overlapping challenges, Tunisia cannot afford to stumble. Indeed, it appears that the country’s very political and economic stability could hinge on the efforts Saied and his new prime minister-designate, Elias Fakhfakh, can exert to coax Tunisia’s feuding leaders toward an agreement on a new, multiparty coalition. Ironically, however, if these two leaders succeed, the country could get caught in the snare of yet another consensus-based government—one that could replicate the sort of frantic immobilism that has marked the country’s democracy since 2011.
Continued Polarization and Growing Fragmentation
Going into the 2019 October and November parliamentary and presidential elections, some Washington-based Tunisia experts expressed the hope that a new parliament and president would move beyond consensus-based politics. A recipe by which warring leaders and factions secured an illusory form of peaceful coexistence, power-sharing politics has usually sustained the deep economic and identity-based divisions that are a hallmark of this small but pluralistic country.
A recipe by which warring leaders and factions secured an illusory form of peaceful coexistence, power-sharing politics has usually sustained the deep economic and identity-based divisions that are a hallmark of this small but pluralistic country.
This outcome was partly a consequence of internal party struggles—especially in the now nearly defunct Nidaa Tounes Party. In this telling case, late President Beji Caid Essebsi and his son Hafez tried to deflect their opponents, accusing them of doing the Islamist Ennahda Party’s bidding. But such crass opportunism underscored a basic structural reality, namely that power sharing perpetuated the very real and still wide divide between Islamists and “modernists” (as secular leaders call themselves). To move beyond this model, it was necessary for the country’s leaders to conclude—and demonstrate to their followers—that they would finally risk letting go of the power-sharing life raft to which they had clung for 10 years. But this required developing the kind of trust that power-sharing politics inhibited. Ironically, while Tunisia transitioned from autocracy to electoral pluralism (a unique achievement in the MENA region), the very model it adopted actually prevented a deepening of democracy.
The electoral map1 that emerged in late fall 2019 provided little hope for making this shift. On the contrary, it was marked by profound polarization and fragmentation. The Islamist-secular divide pitted the Islamist-oriented Ennahda and the more militant Dignity Coalition (with a total of 73 seats) against the leading modernist parties, starting with Heart of Tunis (38 seats), the Democratic Current (22 seats), the People’s Movement and Tahya Tounis (with a combined 30 seats), and the Free Destourian Party (Parti Destourien Libre, PDL; 17 seats). Neither the Islamists nor the secularists are able to command the 109 out of 217 seats required for a bare majority, and thus a cross-party coalition is the only option short of new elections. But the ideological chasm between these two broad camps hindered the creation of such a coalition. The problem was not merely the PDL, whose leader, Abir Moussi—an official in former President Zine El-Abidine ben Ali’s ruling party—is an outspoken advocate of banning all Islamist parties. In fact, other leading parties were hardly sympathetic toward Ennahda. The Heart of Tunis and its millionaire media mogul Nabil Karoui had endured constant accusations of corruption from Ennahda leaders during the fall 2019 electoral campaign. Mohamed Abbou, the leader of the Democratic Current and a prominent human rights advocate, was profoundly suspicious of Ennahda.
But this great secular-Islamist divide was matched by divisions within these two broad camps. None of the other secularly oriented parties supported Moussi’s call to ban Islamist parties, nor for that matter, her authoritarian agenda. Still, for all their shared opposition to the PDL, the other modernist parties disagreed on the crucial question of economic and social policy. The Democratic Current and the People’s Movement favored continued state management of the economy and the protection of Tunisia’s most vulnerable groups. And they were wary of the right-of-center mix of populism and clientelism advocated and practiced by Karoui and the Heart of Tunis. Moreover, with the various rival spinoffs of the once powerful Nidaa Tounes Party commanding only a few seats each, there was no strong or united parliamentary bloc favorable to the much postponed if contentious task of advancing market reforms. Finally, within the Islamist camp, Ennahda faced competition from the Dignity Coalition, whose 21 seats not only cut deeply into Ennahda’s traditional base but also provided a possible source of rival leadership to Ennahda’s leader Rachid Ghannouchi. In short, as 2020 emerged on the horizon, Tunisia was both more polarized and more fragmented.
If this difficult political landscape was the bad news, the relatively good news was the election of Saied as president. He received an astounding 72 percent of the vote with 55 percent of the registered electorate—only five percent less by comparison to Essebsi’s win in 2014. Given evidence of widespread disillusionment, this was more than a moral victory: it suggested that a leader who evinced integrity, charisma, and a moral stance that cuts across the Islamist-secular divide could still inspire hope even in those sectors of society most estranged from the political system. Nevertheless, Tunisia’s is a mixed system in which the president is responsible for foreign policy and security and the parliament takes care of domestic policy. Indeed, according to the constitution and following the well-established norms of parliamentary practice, the formation of a new government is to be undertaken by the largest party in parliament. Thus, although Ennahda got under 20 percent of the vote, it had the first crack at nominating a new prime minister and supporting his choices for the government. But since no government could be knitted together without support from modernist parties, it was essential that these parties be reassured that the prime minister-designate and his nominees were not a mere extension of Ennahda.
Tunisia’s is a mixed system in which the president is responsible for foreign policy and security and the parliament takes care of domestic policy.
However, for reasons that remain unclear, Ghannouchi proceeded to act in ways that provoked concerns that he and his party were overreaching. Such concerns had already emerged when, in the lead-up to the October 2019 elections, Ghannouchi announced he was planning to run for parliament. This was a first: prior to that, he had stayed out of formal politics. He did so not only because he wanted to maintain his special status within Ennahda; equally important is that by not seeking political office, Ghannouchi signaled his readiness to limit his political ambitions—even as he continued to exercise enormous political influence. Now he not only declared that he would aim for parliament in the wake of Ennahda’s victory, but he became speaker of the parliament. From that perch, Ghannouchi nominated Habib Jemli to become prime minister. A career technocrat who had served in the Ennahda-led “troika” government, Jemli was a known (and perhaps malleable) figure; he thus seemed a smart choice. Even so, some secular leaders feared that Jemli was a closet Nahda supporter, or worse, Ghannouchi’s front man. Moussi led the anti-Jemli members of parliament, but her fears were in fact widely shared.
Concerns about Jemli’s ultimate loyalties intensified in January as he began assembling a government. Tensions were then further inflamed when Erdoǧan announced his impending visit to Tunisia. Apart from worries that he would drag Tunisia into the Libyan morass, Erdoǧan’s unexpected presence in Tunis—and his December 25 meeting with Saied—played into the hands of Moussi and her allies who, after all, have always asserted that Erdoǧan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is merely an extension of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. But then Ghannouchi whacked the hornet’s nest by announcing that he was going to fly to Ankara to meet with Erdoǧan. Moussi seized on the moment and organized a petition demanding Ghannouchi’s resignation. Hauled before the National Assembly (NA), he argued that he was not going to Turkey in his capacity as a National Assembly speaker, an explanation that was not well received. In addition, Ghannouchi was not helped by one well-meaning Ennahda spokesman, who added that Ennahda’s leader had a “special relationship” with Erdoǧan. Indeed, on January 10, by a vote of 134 to 72, the NA rejected Jemli’s proposed government. Despite these events, Ghannouchi not only flew to Turkey the very next day, but he dismissed the idea that there was any link between his trip and Jemli’s fall. “Synchronicity does not mean causality,” Ghannouchi explained, using a classic social science maxim that, however clever, did not assuage his growing chorus2 of critics.
Stumbling Toward a New Government
Following Jemli’s defeat, President Saied invoked his constitutional duty and authority to nominate a new prime minister and government. His nominee is Elias Fakhfakh, a former finance minister who, until recently, belonged to the left-of-center Takattol Movement. Having served as minister of finance in the Ennahda-led troika government, he has a certain level of enduring credibility with that movement. At the same time, Fakhfakh is clearly in the modernist camp, as he demonstrated when he supported amending the inheritance law—a controversial proposition that Ennahda rejected. In short, it would seem that Fakhfakh is well positioned to negotiate a new power-sharing government.
Fakhfakh is clearly in the modernist camp, as he demonstrated when he supported amending the inheritance law—a controversial proposition that Ennahda rejected.
Seeking to reduce tensions, and declaring that his new cabinet would only include parties that were “aligned with the values of the revolution,” he offered a proposal that he apparently expected would garner support on both sides of the modernist-Islamist divide: that the new government not include Karoui’s Heart of Tunis and Moussi’s PDL. Fakhfakh’s assumption that his proposal would gain wide support seemed reasonable; after all, these two parties have earned the ire of both modernists and Islamists. To be sure, Heart of Tunis’s Karoui is seen by many as a corrupt businessman who in fact is still under state investigation for money laundering, while PDL leader Moussi’s demand that Islamist parties be banned violates the basic premise of democratic politics, i.e., that all parties that renounce violence and pledge to respect the 2014 Constitution have a legitimate place in Tunisia’s new political system.
However, to the surprise of the new prime minister designate, Ghannouchi rejected3 excluding Heart of Tunis. Given Ennahda’s previous verbal assaults against Heart of Tunis, Ghannouchi’s insistence that the norm of inclusion required offering Heart of Tunis a place in the new government shocked both his allies and his rivals. But in strictly political terms, his position makes sense. Ennahda’s room for maneuver will be enhanced with a government that has more rather than fewer partners. Moreover, some Heart of Tunis MPs might very well defect to Ennahda. Such calculations seem to have provoked concerns from modernist leaders, not least of whom is Mohamed Abbou.4 A passionate critic of corruption, Abbou’s resignation5 from the Ennahda-led troika government in 2012 was apparently prompted by his fears that Ghannouchi was more interested in not rocking the power-sharing boat than in undertaking reforms6 that might provoke retaliation from the Nidaa Tounes-linked ancien regime business leaders. Abbou’s enduring suspicions7 of Ennahda, combined with the insistence that Heart of Tunis be included in the government, may sink Fakhfakh’s efforts to forge a government that commands even a narrow majority in the parliament. Indeed, there is a real possibility of new elections.
Can Saied Keep the Boat Afloat While Navigating Regional Tensions?
What does this seemingly Byzantine story tell us about Tunisia? The first lesson is that the very malaise of endless power struggles that plagued Tunisia for nearly a decade have become worse, thus throwing road blocks on the path to a new power-sharing government that, if created, could suffer from the very political immobilism that was the hallmark of previous governments and their nine successive prime ministers. The second lesson is that while one key goal of the Jasmine Revolution was to create a strong parliament, political stability in Tunisia seems to require that the country’s new president assert his constitutional and personal authority to keep the governance boat afloat. Indeed, it is not hard to detect in today’s Tunisia a certain nostalgia for the days of strong government and a strong presidency. While the PDL appears to be the only party that has floated the possibility of moving toward a presidential system, the allure of such a shift could grow.
It is not hard to detect in today’s Tunisia a certain nostalgia for the days of strong government and a strong presidency.
Finally, Tunisia’s travails illustrate that the boundary between its domestic politics and regional power struggles is disturbingly porous. Tunisia’s transition was paradoxically helped by the relative disinterest that global and regional powers showed in the country’s internal politics. But Libya’s civil war—compounded by Ankara’s bid to send in troops—is making it harder for Tunisia to retain foreign policy neutrality. Saied’s efforts to keep his country at arm’s length from the Arab world’s cold wars is being severely tested. Thus, in one way or another, Tunisia’s democracy may come to hinge on the leadership of a president8 who, until 2019, had no formal political role nor any link to the existing political parties. Whether Saied’s growing role (and perhaps power) bodes well or poorly for Tunisia’s still struggling democracy remains to be seen.