Tunisia’s democracy at a crossroads
Eight years after political changes in the wake of the Arab Spring, as Tunisia moves toward elections and a generational change in its leadership, the country faces an uncertain future.
Tunisia was the only success story to emerge from the Arab Spring. Amid debilitating political feuds and attacks from extremist elements, the country drew up a constitution that guaranteed the rights and liberties of all Tunisians and a democratic political order in which all parties could compete in free elections.
Much of the credit for this goes to President Beji Caid Essebsi, who led the country from 2014 until his death on July 25 at 92. Essebsi’s political career began in 1965 when he became interior minister in the cabinet of Habib Bourguiba. He was also president of the chamber of deputies during the presidency of Zine El-Abedine bin Ali. After the fall of the latter in the Arab Spring demonstrations of 2011, Essebsi became a fierce opponent of the Islamist party Ennahda, which won the elections that year. He set up an opposition party, Neda Tounes, consisting of diverse secular elements in the country.
As Ennahda came under pressure from secular forces and extremist militants, Essebsi saw wisdom in compromise: He initiated a national dialogue with the Islamists, finalized the new democratic constitution, and put together a national unity government that included Neda Tounes, Ennahda and other smaller parties. This willingness to accommodate disparate elements in government saved the country’s democracy.
However, over the last three years, the sheen has started to wear off. The economy has been the gravest area of concern, with unemployment at 15 percent and low wages, high inflation and widespread corruption rife. Those who had agitated for change now found themselves excluded from the narrative of national success, even as representatives of former regimes made a comeback into national affairs, their rehabilitation facilitated by the president in the name of national reconciliation.
Tunisia has also been hurt by low foreign investment, which has declined from $1.35 billion in the last five years of the Bin Ali regime to $945 million last year. This reflects the low level of international confidence in the country, and has deprived it of much-needed resources for industrial and technological development and for the development of its youth.
But what has damaged national consensus most severely is the former president’s pandering to the ambitions of his son, Hafez. The latter took control of Neda Tounes and became embroiled in a rivalry with Prime Minister Youssef Chahed. Chahed broke away from Neda Tounes in January and set up his own party, Tahya Tounes (“Long Live Tunisia“). It is now the second largest party in Parliament after Ennahda.
The candidacy of Ennahda for the highest office is a concern for many Tunisians.
The outlook, however, is not yet desperate. All political factions came together to mourn the Essebsi’s death. The speaker of the assembly peacefully assumed charge as interim president, while the deputy speaker, Ennahda’s Abdel Fattah Mourou, took over as acting head of the assembly.
On July 31, the head of the country’s election authority announced that presidential elections will take place on Sept. 15. Candidates were entitled to file nominations between Aug. 2 and Aug. 9, and can campaign between Sept. 2 and Sept. 13. Results will be announced two days after the polls close. Parliamentary elections are slated for Oct. 6.
A number of prominent candidates will contest the presidential contest. Chahed will face Mourou, who will stand as the Ennahda candidate — the first time the Islamist party has sought the highest office. Defense Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi will represent Neda Tounes. The field will also include Moncef Marzouki, who was interim president from 2011 to 2014, and former Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa. These established politicians will face a strong challenge from the television magnate Nabil Karoui, who is a vociferous critic of Prime Minister Chahed.
The candidacy of Ennahda for the highest office is a concern for many Tunisians. In 2016, Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi categorically stated that his party would disassociate itself from the Muslim Brotherhood and would style itself as “Muslim Democrat,” along the lines of the Christian Democrats in Europe.
In practice, Ghannouchi has given priority to wide-ranging economic reform rather than focusing on doctrinal issues. His reform package includes making public enterprises more efficient, training youth to become entrepreneurs, and encouraging greater international engagement for the nation’s businesses. But will this convince the electorate that he has truly abandoned his Islamist agenda?
The country continues to face attacks from extremists — there were two suicide bombings in late June — and Tunisians are seriously concerned about homegrown elements being radicalized in prisons and by the influx of weapons and militants from the Libyan conflict.
There is an urgent need for politicians to deliver on their promises so that increasingly alienated voters believe that their aspirations could actually become reality. Former armed forces officers have recently set up their own party — calling for national unity and values, two things conspicuously missing from the country’s mainstream political parties. Could the failures of Tunisia’s political leaders encourage their serving brethren to take charge of the nation?
• Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.