Tunisia’s Fragmented and Polarized Political Landscape

Having recently spent a week in Tunisia, this author cannot claim that his grasp of the country’s increasingly Byzantine politics has improved significantly. Nor is it clear that a longer stay would offer more insight, since Tunisians themselves express enormous confusion about what is occurring. Almost everyone seems to agree that the effort to consolidate the country’s fragile democracy is now experiencing a kind of slow-motion fall.

What this will mean in practical terms is hard to say: how things fall apart is something of a mystery. Fortunately, Tunisia does not boast a powerful politicized military that has the legitimacy or capacity to serve as the ultimate arbiter—or enforcer—of a divided political arena. Still, if Tunisia’s center (and its still formidable, if bureaucratically frozen, state apparatus) does not hold, the already difficult regional security situation in North Africa will surely worsen. The Maghreb cannot afford for the situation in Tunisia to become a kind of “Libya light.”

If the country’s warring clans and politicians continue to battle under the umbrella of a largely fake consensus, the democratic experiment could be in trouble.

The political tremors coming from the massive protests in Algeria have magnified concerns about maintaining national cohesion. Many Tunisians fear that the protests might provoke a wave of repression and internal violence that could induce a massive influx of Algerian refugees. This would potentially place enormous social, economic, and security pressures on Tunisia, a country already in the middle of a severe economic crisis and hosts tens of thousands of Libyan refugees. Still, Tunisia’s problems are ultimately home-grown. If the country’s warring clans and politicians continue to battle under the umbrella of a largely fake consensus, the democratic experiment could be in trouble. The need for visionary leadership has never been greater.

Three Intersecting Political Challenges

Among the many intersecting factors and forces that have contributed to Tunisia’s political and social crisis, three major political leadership challenges stand out.

Despite the remarkable achievement represented by Tunisia’s 2014 National Dialogue, the country remains profoundly polarized.

First, despite the remarkable achievement represented by Tunisia’s 2014 National Dialogue, the country remains profoundly polarized. Although Ennahda Party cofounder Rachid Ghannouchi declared in 2016 that Ennahda would henceforth be a strictly political party, the gains it made during the May 2018 local elections provoked deep fears in the fragmented secular camp. Ghannouchi’s uncanny capacity to leverage personal and ideological divisions in the context of a consensus-based government has helped to ensure that Ennahda remains the only effective national party.

Second, Tunisia’s government has rested on an increasingly fragile consensus that has sustained a status quo that seems increasingly unsustainable—especially on the economic front. Indeed, the default button of consensus has produced the worst of all worlds. Ennhada and Nidaa Tounes seem almost at one when it comes to backing a slate of new security laws containing provisions that could threaten free speech. But when it comes to economic reforms, neither party has had the courage to break with an inflationary policy designed to placate major associational groups as well as informal networks that are closely tied to government officials. This situation could lead to a social explosion that Tunisia’s unreformed security sector may have trouble containing without recourse to repressive measures.

Third, personal, family, and clan power struggles have fragmented the Nidaa Tounes Party in ways that could exacerbate social and identity-based conflicts. With parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for November 2019, secular leaders could find that the only force that unites them is their shared opposition to Ennahda. However, the growing concerns that Ennahda might win a majority provides an insufficient and even dangerous basis for attracting supporters. Indeed, fear-based platforms could invite electoral violence.

Islamist-Secular Polarization: Back to the Future?

The 2013-14 National Dialogue produced a national consensus for a new democratic politics whose basic rules of the game were outlined in the revised 2014 Constitution. The consensus has proven illusory and profoundly contradictory. Part of the problem is the abiding fear among Tunis-based secular politicians, businessmen, professionals, and intellectuals regarding Ennahda’s ultimate aims. President Beji Caid Essebsi may trust Ghannouchi but not the party he represents. Thus, Essebsi has not only tried to read the constitution in a distinctly secular (or modernist) light, but to push a revision of laws to put further distance between mosque and state. For his part, Ghannouchi has tried to avoid appearing overly eager to get in Essebsi’s way. Ghannouchi’s pragmatism partly reflects the fact that despite its own divisions, Ennahda remains far more powerful and national in reach than its secular rivals. Playing the long game, Ghannouchi’s strategy is to stay within the broad boundaries of consensus while positioning his party for the November 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections.

Playing the long game, Ghannouchi’s strategy is to stay within the broad boundaries of consensus while positioning his party for the November 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections.

Essebsi signaled his overall secular strategy in August 2017 when, on National Women’s Day, he created the Individual Freedoms and Equality Committee (COLIBE). Chaired by MP Bochra Belhaj Hmida,1 a prominent feminist, COLIBE issued a 300-page report in June 2018 advocating a range of amended and new laws, including one on the hot button issue of inheritance rights. The report’s timing was not fortuitous. It came out following a year of soul searching within a multifaceted secularist camp that was still absorbing the political shock of the May 2018 municipal elections, when Ennhada won the biggest share followed by independents and then Nidaa Tounes. This third-place finish represented a huge defeat for Nidaa Tounes which, after all, had won the largest plurality of seats in the 2014 parliamentary elections—and on that basis had formed a cabinet in which Ennahda ministers played second fiddle. Having lost two-thirds of its electoral support, Nidaa’s leaders sought to cauterize the wound in advance of the fall 2019 elections by raising the flag of modernism. The COLIBE report, whose publication provoked noisy street protests in Tunis by Islamist and secular groups, was meant to be an opening and unifying salvo in a cultural-ideological struggle that would reverse Ennahda’s gains.

Although the most important piece of legislation to come out from the COLIBE report—the new law on inheritance—sparked passions, it has not provided a sufficient rallying cry to unify the secular camp.

Such expectations have not been met. Although the most important piece of legislation to come out from the COLIBE report—the new law on inheritance—sparked passions, it has not provided a sufficient rallying cry to unify the secular camp. Indeed, other issues overshadowed the inheritance debate. Labor strikes organized by the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) galvanized far wider national attention than the inheritance question. Moreover, by the time the new inheritance law was proposed, Nidaa Tounes’s leaders were pursuing a very public power struggle. Ennahda may have been trying to leverage this divide by proposing an amendment that would give Tunisians the option to divide inheritance equally—while keeping Sharia law as the default. Ennahda’s leaders know that this compromise will never fly; by proposing it, they are signaling continued support for a government of nominal consensus, even as they play factional politics.

How this contest plays out remains to be seen. Parliament must still vote on the inheritance law. When it does, Ennahda will probably prevent its passing and, in doing so, enhance its credentials among its largely conservative base. These kinds of polarizing identity struggles might have been mitigated by the appointment of a supreme court, which according to the constitution, has the right of judicial review. In a sign of the times, however, secular-Islamist struggles have played no small role in sabotaging the appointment of this court. In the absence of such a court, even on those rare occasions when Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes have agreed on legislation, members of parliament have passed laws that could very well contravene the constitution.

The Limits and Costs of Consensus Politics

On the face of it, the struggle over the inheritance law would seem to portend the end of a consensus-based government. In reality, the government may totter along because neither party has enough seats to govern by itself. Indeed, there is a strange kind of short-term safety in numbers: Tunisia’s economic crisis, underscored by its rising domestic and foreign debts, requires decisive—if socially undesirable—austerity measures such as cutting government subsidies, raising taxes, realigning the exchange rate to favor exports and foreign investment, and imposing a freeze on government hiring. Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda wasted two years in avoiding taking this plunge, but finally did so in spring 2018 in return for a $3 billion dollar loan from the IMF. But then the government backtracked by offering a $70 million package of “social reforms,” thus exerting further pressure on a state budget that had already taken a further hit after strikes in the Gafsa region closed down phosphate production for several months.

The preference is for a political consensus that protects Tunisia’s leaders—but one that ultimately clashes with the requirements for a more coherent and consistent economic policy.

This pattern did not shift in the ensuing year. On the contrary, in January 2019, 700,000 public workers stayed home in a one-day strike. Seeking to calm the waters, the government gave pay raises to 670,000 public sector workers. It is noteworthy that economically speaking, such concessions are a lose-lose proposition. On the one hand, they feed the budget deficit and thus exacerbate the very budget crisis that led to the adoption of austerity measures in the first place. On the other hand, they detract from the more fundamental structural reforms that must be undertaken to foster domestic competition and foreign investment. Such deeper reforms not only require shifting limited government resources from costly pay increases to basic long-term investments in infrastructure, education, and healthcare, but they also require a frontal assault on corruption and smuggling operations. Here, the critical obstacle is not the UGTT, but rather a myriad networks and powerful actors that neither party has the means or will to confront. With parliamentary and presidential elections on the horizon, the understandable preference is for a political consensus that protects Tunisia’s leaders—but one that ultimately clashes with the requirements for a more coherent and consistent economic policy for both the private and public sectors.

This unhappy situation will invite further protests and strikes, thus confronting the government with the politically difficult challenge of how to manage social unrest. With an internal security apparatus that lacks economic incentives, training, and recruitment programs that are basic to any reform of this crucial sector—not to mention a judiciary that is deeply divided by power struggles between the ancien regime and new generation actors—the government will be tempted to shut down protests and punish what it considers unlawful dissent.

Ennahda’s and Nidaa Tounes’s support for national security laws underscores a pattern of authoritarian drift in a fragile democracy that still lacks one critical institution: a supreme court.

On this score, the writing has been on the wall for at least two years. Indeed, in 2017 Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda backed a new law that not only gives the judiciary ample space to punish “abuses against the armed forces” but also to prosecute the publication of any “secrets” that are linked to “national security.” This law has been used to prosecute several bloggers, including Yassine Ayari, a member of parliament who was jailed for three months for mocking military leaders on Facebook. Moreover, in February 2019 the government proposed a new “emergency powers” law, one which human rights groups warn will give “the government sweeping powers to restrict rights.” Although it has not been passed, Ennahda’s and Nidaa Tounes’s support for the bill underscores a pattern of authoritarian drift in a fragile democracy that still lacks one critical institution: a supreme court.

Fragmentation and Dissension in the Secular Camp

Since its inception, Tunisia’s current government has operated on the tacit principle that because Nidaa Tounes won the largest share of votes in the October 2014 parliamentary elections—together with the presidential vote–—it would have a leading role in setting policies that Ennahda, as the junior member of the coalition, would then support. Ennahda agreed to this unequal power-sharing arrangement because it needed time to recapture lost electoral ground in the urban arenas and extend and solidify its reach into the culturally traditional rural areas. In short, Ennahda’s leaders have kept their eyes on the long-term game.

This has not been the approach of Nidaa Tounes’s leaders. Instead, their party has been torn apart by bitter feuds. Although one might assume that the May 2018 municipal elections would have prompted efforts to unify the party, the reverse was true: Nidaa Tounes’s poor showing provided an additional incentive for alienated party members to seek new allies—even in the Islamist camp. Such a move underscored the fragile nature of the power-sharing formula enshrined in the August 2016 Carthage Agreement. That pact widened the power-sharing circle by including five opposition parties and several civil society groups, two of which—the UGTT and the Tunisian Union for Industry Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA)—espoused clashing economic programs and interests. Presiding over this bloated coalition was the new prime minister, Youssef Chahed. A proponent of economic reforms, his efforts not only antagonized several coalition members, but they also angered President Essebsi and his son, Hafedh Caid Essebsi, both of whom came to view Chahed as a dangerous rival.

The basic—if pathological—logic of consensus-based politics has endured because no other means of ruling seems possible.

Thus, in spring 2018, they began maneuvers to force him out of office. Ennahda opposed this move, aligning itself with Chahed and other parties of the rapidly imploding coalition government. This development sparked some 50 members of Nidaa Tounes to leave the party and join the National Coalition bloc, a party created by former Nidaa member MP Mustapha Ben Ahmed—a fierce opponent of the Essebsi clan. They produced a basic realignment in the parliament by securing the largest plurality (68 deputies), with Nidaa Tounes coming in second with 53. Confronted by this change, in September 2018 the president declared that the “consensus and relationship between Ennahda and myself has ended, after they chose to form another relationship with (Prime Minister) Youssef Chahed.”

Nidaa Tounes’s implosion has produced a degree of uncertainty in a divided secular camp that may not be able to rely on the glue of fear when the moment of electoral truth arrives.

Despite this declaration, the basic—if pathological—logic of consensus-based politics has endured because no other means of ruling seems possible. Indeed, all parties have agreed that Chahed remain in office, leaving the question of who will replace him in the upcoming elections. Still, as Essebsi’s oblique reference to a possible Chahed-Ennahda alliance suggests, Nidaa Tounes’s implosion has produced a degree of uncertainty in a divided secular camp that may not be able to rely on the glue of fear to unify its quarrelsome factions when the moment of electoral truth arrives.

Into the Breach ….

Two days before this author returned to the United States, his hired Tunisian driver quietly and uncomfortably asked for a tip. The request was hard to make because the usual procedure is to hope for rather than directly request a tip. That the driver put such diplomatic niceties aside underscores the growing desperation of working- and middle-class Tunisians. A mix of anger and apathy could lead to a social explosion that the country’s embryonic democratic institutions, and its divided leaders, will find difficult to contain.

A mix of anger and apathy could lead to a social explosion that the country’s embryonic democratic institutions and its divided leaders will find difficult to contain.

The good news—if one can call it that—is that there is no army that will actually solve Tunisia’s problems. Chahed’s June 6, 2018 dismissal of Lotfi Ibrahim—a former National Guard commander who is widely viewed as aggressively anti-Islamist—together with Chahed’s firing of some 100 top security officials, raised concerns about the military’s role in the political system. There is little evidence that Tunisia will, or can, go down the path of Egypt. Nor will it find salvation in adopting a presidential system that gives the executive the authority to override the will of parliament. Essebsi recently proposed amending the constitution to move in this direction, but the chances that he can muster two-thirds of the parliament to support this move are remote. Whatever its obvious shortcomings, replacing a proportional parliamentary system would be a huge step back.

In short, there is no obvious alternative to fixing a democratic transition that has fallen on hard times. It is precisely for this reason that the United States and the European Union must continue to engage with Tunisia and support its hard march forward. For Tunisia, and indeed the entire region, the failure to consolidate the country’s hard-won transition would be a calamity.

Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Daniel and read his publications click here

1 Source is in French.