Monday, 18 February 2013

TUNISIA: ''Political Crisis'': From Revolution to Islamist Government

Tunisia's young democracy has never seemed to be in so much jeopardy. The political opposition is accusing the ruling Ennahda party of the assassination of Chokri Belaid, a popular figure on the political left who was murdered Feb. 6 in front of his home, and hundreds of Tunisians are holding ongoing protests to demand the government’s resignation. Several parties, including one of Ennahda's coalition partners, are threatening to pull out of the Constituent Assembly, which is tasked with rewriting Tunisia's constitution and the prime Minister still conducts negotiations to form a cabinet of technocrats for the new government. Another round of negotiations is scheduled today.

The current political turmoil is an outgrowth of Tunisia’s many challenges, which have multiplied over the past few months and culminated in Belaid’s assassination. Yet it is becoming increasingly obvious that many of the revolution’s achievements remain in place amid the current crisis and in the face of broader political and socio-economic tensions.

Politically, the Ennahda government’s single most important shortcoming has been its failure to demonstrate a real commitment to combating rising religious extremism in the country. Salafist groups, some violent, have emerged throughout the country, increasingly posing a threat to the security of the state and its people. News reports about jihadist training camps on Tunisian soil are multiplying, and ongoing illegal weapons trafficking from Libya and Algeria keeps radical groups supplied with arms.

In addition, Ennahda's close relations with several Salafist leaders, as well as the ideological proximity of some of the ruling party’s own supporters to the ultraconservatives, have led many Tunisians to suspect a secret alliance between the two Islamist forces, aimed at eventually enforcing Shariah law over the country.

Delays in constitution-drafting and upcoming elections, as well as sporadic attacks on press freedoms and personal liberties, have only reinforced fears among more secular Tunisians that the Islamist-led government is not genuine in its commitment to democracy and the rule of law, resulting in widening rifts between Islamists and secularists in recent months.

Adding to this political disillusionment is persistent economic hardship that has made life for many Tunisians more difficult since the revolution. Falling revenues from tourism, a decrease in foreign investment and negative spillover effects from the ongoing economic crisis in the European Union -- Tunisia’s main trading partner -- are making economic recovery a challenge. Tunisia’s youth, one of the main drivers behind the 2010-2011 revolution and a central force in the current protests, have been hit particularly hard, with youth unemployment running as high as 40 percent in some parts of the country.

Combined, these political and socio-economic strains have reinforced widespread mistrust of Ennahda's capacity to govern Tunisia and the party’s willingness to promote democracy. Lack of confidence in the ruling party in turn partially explains the speed with which much of the population accused Ennahda of Belaid’s murder, even though the identity of his assassin is still unknown.

The tragic assassination and the crisis that followed, however, do not spell the loss of Tunisia’s many revolutionary achievements. In fact, the thousands of people taking to the streets throughout the country, and the government’s somewhat compromising response to the unrest, suggest quite the opposite: namely, that it is the Tunisian people who are still in control of the future of their country.

Moreover, though tear gas was used to disperse some protests, most protesters were allowed to demonstrate peacefully and to publicly display their outrage over Belaid’s assassination. Meanwhile, the fact that the media not only covered the events but in some cases accused the government of the assassination is illustrative of how Tunisia has changed, and has in many ways become more democratic, since the fall of the Ben Ali regime. That degree of press freedom and public willingness to criticize the government was previously impossible.

Most importantly, perhaps, Ennahda's two most influential political figures, party leader Rachid Ghannouchi and Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, have reaffirmed their willingness to redistribute power in the government, although disagreements still persist as to how this will be done. Partly in response to pressure from other parties in the Constituent Assembly, Ghannouchi announced late Monday that negotiations are underway for the formation of a government of national unity; Jebali still seems to favor a government of technocrats. In any case, Ennahda does not appear willing to enforce a monopoly on power.

If Ennahda can find a compromise with other parties on how to redistribute power, Tunisia might be able to come out of the current political crisis stronger and more democratic than before, with power more equally distributed among diverse political constituencies. In the end, such an outcome might be advantageous for everybody: for the political opposition, because it would gain influence, and for Ennahda, because it would no longer have to shoulder the responsibility for all of Tunisia’s political and socio-economic problems alone.

A major obstacle to finding a speedy compromise stems from divisions within the ruling party itself on how to distribute power. Some hardliners within Ennahda seem unwilling to give up key posts of power and are resisting plans to form a new government. At the same time, Tunisia's political opposition has to be willing to engage in a compromise that is feasible for both sides.

Even if Ennahda reaches a compromise, it remains to be seen whether a more diverse government will result in further political deadlock and stagnation, or whether the members of such a government will actually work together to continue to smooth Tunisia’s difficult path to democratic transition.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: Wikip├ędia: Tunisian Prime Minister: Hamadi Jebali