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What next for Tunisia? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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People waving Tunisian flags gather during a protest to demand the ouster of the Islamist-dominated government outside the Constituent Assembly headquarters in Tunis. (Reuters Photos)

People waving Tunisian flags gather during a protest to demand the ouster of the Islamist-dominated government outside the Constituent Assembly headquarters in Tunis. (Reuters Photos)

People waving Tunisian flags gather during a protest to demand the ouster of the Islamist-dominated government outside the Constituent Assembly headquarters in Tunis. (Reuters Photos)

Tunis, Asharq Al-Awsat—Since the crisis following the elections of October 23, 2011, sudden changes in the political scene have not been unusual in Tunisia. The elections led to a coalition government with a relative majority for the Islamic Renaissance Party—Ennahda—led by opponents of the former president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, and included Mustafa Ben Jaafar, leader of the Leftist Ettakol Party, and Moncef Marzouki, leader of the National Congress party.

Now, more than two months since the Egyptian military overthrew President Mohamed Mursi and detained the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, Tunisia has come under unprecedented political pressure from a number of prominent decision-makers both domestically and internationally. A number of political leaders are calling for radical changes on the country’s political scene, specifically demanding the dismissal of the current government led by Ali Laarayedh, the secretary-general of the Ennahda Party.

This begs an important question: what lies in Tunisia’s future, three years after the overthrow of the Ben Ali government and the beginning of the so-called “Arab Spring”? Do people fear that Tunisia will become another Libya, Egypt or Yemen, where the political scenes are rapidly changing in ways that favor the regimes that existed before the Arab Spring? Or have developments in Egypt since the events of June 30 and July 3 persuaded decision-makers that resolving their political differences without the involvement of the armed forces is a necessity?

According to the latest statements of the secretary-general of the Federation of Trade Unions, Hussein Abasi, and head of the Association of Laborers, Wadad Bushami, “All the government and opposition political leaders are willing to make major sacrifices and painful concessions” to resolve the political crisis Tunisia has been trapped in since the assassination of Arab Nationalist and Leftist opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi in July. Nonetheless, some opposition factions have called for “a new uprising until the overthrow of the government and the National Constituent Assembly [is achieved].” Meanwhile, leaders of the coalition government have said that “an attempted coup against the legitimately elected institutions would cross a red line,” in the words of former president Hamadi Al-Hibali and Islamic social leader Abdel Al-Fattah Moro.

The search for assurances and guarantees

Despite the signs of an “uprising,” statements made by an official spokesman for the coalition government, Mouldi Riahi, and the leader of the Leftist Bloc Party, Mustafa Ben Jaafar, to Asharq Al-Awsat were upbeat. They also revealed that negotiations between leaders of the opposition parties and the coalition government led to “agreements on all of the contentious issues, including the idea of the current government resigning and replacing it with a non-partisan government.”

However, disagreements persist on some key issues. The opposition has stuck to its demand that the government resign before beginning any national dialogue about the future of the country, while the coalition government wants dialogue sessions first, and then an agreement on a plan of action and the naming of a new president before dismissing the current government.

At the same time, Ali Laarayedh reiterated in a recent statement on television that his government is ready to make all concessions necessary to avoid chaos and a political vacuum. Still, his government’s resignation is unlikely before the beginning a national dialogue and agreement on a new road map. Before reaching a new national political agreement, the leaders of the opposition and coalition government are moving at a faster pace towards ratifying a new constitution and the holding of the deferred parliamentary and presidential elections.

In comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, political expert and independent human rights activist Salah El-Din El-Jourshi summed up the situation by saying: “Parties are nervous about the future and want political guarantees, in anticipation of the country entering a stage of calculation and mutual exclusion.”

Changing the situation domestically and regionally

Others are less optimistic about the future. Two leftist leaders, Hima Al-Hamami and Samir Al-Deeb, alongside the rest of the “radical” opposition figures, say that Tunisia’s situation has changed markedly over the past few weeks and months.

In the words of Hima Al-Hamami, the leader of the Communist Workers’ Party, “In the current coalition government, the Ennahda Movement and the political Islam trend is resurgent. It is no longer generally acceptable to maintain the current leadership of the legally elected coalition government.” This is especially true of Ennahda, he says, because hundreds of thousands of Tunisians have been taking to the streets since the assassination of Mohamed Brahmi, demanding its removal.

Many figures on the Left have resigned from the Constituent Assembly and have sought instead to galvanize support among a number of the workers’ unions and leftist parties. For example, Manji Al-Rahwy, a member of the party of the deceased Chokri Belaid, called for “the overthrow of the government immediately and the exclusion of all Islamists from the political scene.”

Rahwy says that he holds those allied with the leader of Ennahda, Rachid Ghannouchi, personally responsible for the terrorist attacks that led to the assassination of some members of the security forces, as well as members of the opposition like Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, because of what he describes as “their toleration of Salafi extremists during the past two years.”

The changing situation on the ground

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Abd Al-Latif Al-Mekky, a minister in the current coalition government and one of the prominent leaders of the Ennahda Party in the negotiations with the opposition, denied that his movement and his government were “stalling and changing the situation on the ground.”

He said this in reaction to accusations from members of the opposition like Ahmed Nageeb Al-Shaby, leader of the Republican Party, and Abd Al-Rezaq Al-Hamamy, the secretary-general of the National Democratic Workers Party, both of whom joined the coalition “United for Tunisia” led by Beji Caid El-Sebsi, leader of the former government and foreign and interior minister in the era of President Habib Bourguiba.

Leaders of the left-wing opposition parties also say that Ennahda and its allies are trying to effectively extend the term of Ali Laarayedh’s government, using the bloody events in Egypt and the terrorist attacks on Tunisia’s border with Algeria as a pretext. Prolonging the issue gives them an opportunity to continue improve their positions on the ground in preparation for the upcoming election campaign, they allege.

Security and economic challenges

But while Tunisia’s leaders have been successful in meeting some of the country’s security challenges in the past two years, the economic problems are growing and could be about to cause explosions of social unrest capable of undermining both the government and opposition at the same time.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Finance Minister Elyas Fakhfakh warned of “financial and structural economic pressures and an accumulating budget deficit at many levels.” He also cautioned that funding pre-existing contracts, combined with a drop in the value of the Tunisian dinar and an increasing public deficit, was exacerbating the country’s financial problems, which were already growing thanks to the increasing cost of paying into pension funds and other support funds. (Costs rose from TND 1.5 billion before the revolution to TND six billion this year, despite an increase in fuel production in 2012) Meanwhile, the deficits of social security funds, inflation of social burdens, and the proportion of wages and grants in the national budget, are all rising thanks to investment in public work programs.

According to the Tunisian finance minister, the deficit of the main public institutions—estimated to be about TND 18 billion before the revolution of 2011—has grown 450 percent. He also noted that “these developments are recorded at a time when there is doubt as to whether retirement, social security and health insurance funds will be able to meet their obligations to millions of Tunisians, especially in the public sector.” He indicated that the risks associated with this development include a reduction in the nation’s abilities to “increase the flow of money” for the benefit of public institutions and social funds, “because the new burdens have exceeded TND 7 billion since 2010, 3 billion for increasing wages and the remaining 4 [billion] for the support fund.”

Confrontation deferred?

Despite these economic problems, the government’s political opponents—trade unionists, and leading figures from opposition National Salvation Front—are pursuing a confrontational approach. In recent weeks, they have organized a wave of popular action. The emergence of divisions within the opposition has persuaded a majority of Tunisian politicians that returning to the negotiating table is crucial.

Despite the announcements about failed negotiations this past week, Hussein Al-Abassi, the secretary-general of the United Workers, returned to announce a new initiative for talks and negotiations in the name of human and workers’ rights organizations and trade unions. Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Asadiq Belaid, a professor of law and political expert, suggested that talks between Hussein Al-Abassi and Rachid Ghannouchi, leaders of the United Workers and Ennahda movements respectively, are confirmation that “a majority of political parties are convinced that it isn’t possible force any side to govern Tunisia by itself, and that political consensus is very crucial to pulling the country out of its current crisis.”

Beleid also expressed optimism that independents and trade unionists could play a major positive role in the new transitional phase, and is expecting successful results from the national dialogue announced by Hussein Abasi and the rest of the leaders of the opposition and coalition government.

A short window

However, Beleid also said he was worried about “the risk of extending the dialogue sessions and negotiations about a united initiative and about the great proposals by political parties, especially regarding suggestions made by the Call for Tunisia Party and Ennahda to extend them indefinitely.”

He said he believed that the maximum term for completing the dialogues and consultations should not exceed the current deadline, October 23, in order to clear the way for drafting the new constitution and determining the date of the next election, which can be held no later than the first three months of 2014. Belaid considers the weeks leading up to October 23 to be enough time to complete the marathon negotiations that are expected to take place in preparation for the formation of the new transitional government. The talks will be overseen by an independent figure who will not be a candidate in the upcoming elections.

Belaid predicted that a majority of leftist and socialist activists would leave Beji Caid El-Sebsi’s Call for Tunisia party and the alliance that he leads and join the New Socialist Party instead. He added that this may include symbols of the Republican Party, such as Mr. Ahmed Naguib Al-Shaby and Samira Al-Teeb, and others like Ahmed Ibrahim Al-Fadl Mousa and Riyadh Ben Fadl, as well as leaders and activists from the Popular Front.

Beleid indicated that the rest of the politicians and activists from Tunisia’s 180 parties will form a more conservative bloc, which may be called the “United for Tunis,” and develop into “a political party uniting a majority of Muslim activists in the Ennahda movement and the Noda Tunisia party.”

“This would work because there are no substantial conflicts between a majority of constitutionalists and members of Ennahda. It is also possible that they will form between them a conservative party to compete with the liberal labor parties,” he added.

Jurist and former minister Hamouda Ben Salama indicated that the political arena is unduly preoccupied with “political initiatives,” at the expense of social, economic or development issues. This has led to social and security tensions, complicating the general situation in the country, he says.

Salama added that it has become a priority for activists and independent experts, such as Sayeed Salah Al-Deen Al-Jourshi, to purify the general political climate via genuine national dialogue. This would pave the way for the formation of a technocratic government before October 23.

Liberals and jurists close to the coalition government defend its continuation and reject the idea of a coup. These include Belkasim Hassan, the secretary-general of the Culture and Work Party, and Mohamed Kwamy, the secretary-general of the Reform and Development party, who believe that it is possible to complete the constitution before October 23, particularly if the conditions for dialogue and political consensus can be achieved. They are also of the view that party leaders must not put their own electoral considerations ahead of the wider process.

The role of unions

In this context, the spotlight will on the labor and student unions during the coming weeks. There were indications that they were going to call for strikes and sit-ins to support moderate solutions and begin preparing for the coming elections, especially after meetings between the opposition leader Sebsi and Ennahda’s Ghannouchi in Tunisia and France. The reaction of the unions to Ennahda’s “project deals,” in which the party commits not to run a candidate in the presidential elections and to limit their participation in the national and parliamentary elections, will also be of key importance.

But at a time when the when political groups appear focused on their own agendas and building alliances for the forthcoming elections, every party will continue to use “local, national and regional” papers, says Salama, “in an attempt to change the balance of power on the ground before the selection of a date for holding elections.”