Supporters of the Islamist Ennahda party celebrate outside the party's headquarters after claiming victory in a local poll in Tunis, Tunisia, May 6, 2018.
Supporters of the Islamist Ennahda party celebrate outside the party's headquarters after claiming victory in a local poll in Tunis, Tunisia, on 6 of May 2018. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

Restoring Public Confidence in Tunisia’s Political System

Whether Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed will remain in his post or resign has been at the heart of a political crisis for several weeks. Should major political parties and trade unions fail to find a compromise, putting in place a technocratic government could help shore up public trust and reduce tensions.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

What’s new? Tunisia is going through a governmental crisis sparked chiefly by a dispute between political forces about whether the prime minister, Youssef Chahed, should resign and by a struggle for control of Nida Tounes, one of the two main parties in the governing coalition.

Why does it matter? The crisis has paralysed the government and parliament, divided and discredited the political class and undermined public confidence in the country’s institutions. It has reduced the government’s capacity to deal with unexpected events, such as jihadist attacks or large-scale riots, and has fuelled the drift toward authoritarianism.

What should be done? Major political parties and trade unions should put an end to the crisis while remembering that only parliament can decide what happens to Chahed. If he were to step down and if political and social tensions were to become more acute, the formation of a government of “technocrats” would be the best of bad options.

I. Overview

Tunisia is going through a governmental crisis sparked chiefly by a dispute between political forces about whether the prime minister, Youssef Chahed, should remain or resign. The crisis is resolvable but its outcome is uncertain. The results of the municipal elections held on 6 May 2018 have destabilised the parliamentary and government coalition led by Nida Tounes (nationalist) and An-Nahda (Islamist) to the latter’s advantage. This has exacerbated an internal struggle for control of Nida Tounes in the run-up to parliamentary and presidential elections in 2019, pitting the head of government, Youssef Chahed, a marginal figure in the party when he took office in August 2016 who is now more powerful, against the president of the republic’s son, Hafedh Béji Caïd Essebsi, who was catapulted into the party’s executive directorship in January 2016 thanks to support from his father. The current crisis has weakened institutions, paralysed parliament, government and public administration and fuelled authoritarian temptation.

The main political parties and trade unions should come to an agreement on how to end the crisis while bearing in mind that the constitution provides that only parliament has the power to decide Youssef Chahed’s fate.

Should the signatories of the Carthage Agreement (the government of national unity’s roadmap, signed on 13 July 2016) fail to find a compromise to end the crisis and should political and social tensions increase in the coming months, the formation of a government of “technocrats” could provide a temporary solution to increase confidence in political institutions, dampen political quarrels and reduce resentment toward the political class.

II. A New Balance of Power in the Coalition

While the abstention rate of 66.3 per cent in the municipal elections held on 6 May 2018 could be interpreted as a rejection of the entire political class, Nida Tounes was hit harder than An-Nahda.[fn]“Elections municipales 2018 – résultats finaux”, Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE), Footnote In comparison to the 2014 parliamentary elections, the former lost two thirds of its support and the latter lost half. This boosted the political weight of the Islamist party, changed the balance of power in the governing and parliamentary coalition, and raised a question mark over the tacit agreement between Islamists and non-Islamists in place since the 2014 parliamentary and presidential elections.[fn]Since 2 June 2016, a government of national unity, formed at the instigation of the president of the republic, Béji Caïd Essebsi, and led by Youssef Chahed, brings together several political parties and micro-parties. The two most influential civil society organisations – the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) and the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA), members of the national dialogue quartet in 2013 and winners of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 – helped to draft its program, the Carthage Agreement.Hide Footnote

Unlike An-Nahda, Nida Tounes saw these local elections more as a national contest and an opportunity to fine-tune the party’s political and clientelist machinery in preparation for parliamentary and presidential elections in 2019 than a local endeavour. After receiving more votes than any other party in the parliamentary elections in late 2014, it slumped to third position, twelve points behind “independent” lists and eight points behind the Islamist party.[fn]“Elections municipales 2018 – résultats finaux”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

« Elections municipales 2018 – résultats finaux », op. cit.Hide Footnote

The results significantly strengthened the Islamist party’s negotiating position in coalition discussions.

An-Nahda had promised Nida Tounes that the election results would not affect the balance of power within the government of national unity, regardless of how many votes it obtained. However, the results significantly strengthened the Islamist party’s negotiating position in coalition discussions – at the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP, the Tunisian parliament)’s Consensus Commission; during consultations on the Carthage Agreement; talks between An-Nahda’s president, Rached Ghannouchi, and the head of state, Béji Caïd Essebsi, who sometimes acts as president of Nida Tounes; and the more or less formal discussions between the leadership of the two parties.

The terms of the tacit agreement that President Essebsi and Ghannouchi have tried to maintain since the end of 2014 seem to be in question. This agreement limited An-Nahda’s negotiating power within the coalition and obliged the Islamist party to refrain from disturbing clientelist and regionalist balances of power. A more ambitious position would have exposed the party to virulent criticism, nationally and internationally, with anti-Islamists fearing it might become politically hegemonic and take control of the public administration in Tunisia.[fn]This tacit agreement reserves a minority position to members of the Islamist party within important professions, trade unions, the security apparatus, banking institutions, public enterprises and private oligopolies. Crisis Group interviews, political leaders, political commentators, January-July 2018. See also Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°177, Blocked Transition: Corruption and Regionalism in Tunisia, 10 May 2017.Hide Footnote

The Islamist party played the democratic game without self-restraint. Since its tenth congress, in May 2016, An-Nahda has made repeated statements indicating its intention to discard political Islam and sought to reassure Tunisia’s European partners.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°180, Stemming Tunisia’s Authoritarian Drift, 11 January 2018. Crisis Group interviews, European diplomats and international officials, Tunis, April 2018.Hide Footnote It opened its ranks to many non-Islamists from the country’s diverse social, regional and political backgrounds, including former members of the party of former President Ben Ali, overthrown in January 2011, some of whom were elected as its representatives in the municipal elections. Among the businessmen and women from the comparatively wealthy region of the Sahel (east coast), the most anti-Islamist elements have lost some of their political and administrative influence to those more favourable toward sharing power with An-Nahda.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, businessmen, security official, Tunis, January-July 2018.Hide Footnote

Under pressure from its grassroots activists and locally elected representatives and making the most of the conflict within Nida Tounes, An-Nahda, which had won 28 per cent of municipal councillor seats in local elections, took executive control of 36 per cent of municipalities between mid-June and the start of July 2018.[fn]Municipal councillors elect mayors.Hide Footnote This strengthened its territorial base to the disadvantage of its nationalist ally.[fn]“Ennahdha remporte 30 % des sièges, mais rafle 37 % des postes de maire”,, 12 July 2018.Hide Footnote

An-Nahda, easily the most organised and disciplined Tunisian political party, is now the largest party in parliament and in municipal councils. It holds six ministerial and secretary of state posts out of the 36 in Chahed’s government of national unity. It continues to build its base within central and regional government, with a growing number of its supporters and members holding “senior positions in public administration”.[fn]Law n°2015-33 dated 17 August 2015, fixing the higher-level civil positions in accordance with the provisions of Article 92 of the constitution.Hide Footnote

Loi n°2015-33 du 17 août 2015, portant fixation des emplois civils supérieurs conformément aux dispositions de l’article 92 de la Constitution.Hide Footnote

III. The Governmental Crisis

During the summer of 2017, the president of the republic, and leaders of Nida Tounes and An-Nahda had reached an agreement to remove Youssef Chahed, the head of the government and a Nida Tounes member.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Nida Tounes and An-Nahda leaders, senior public administration officials, political activists, September-November 2017.Hide Footnote Like his predecessor, Habib Essid, Chahed displayed an autonomy befitting his role as the main head of the executive branch, as defined by the constitution. He launched a selective “war on corruption” that indirectly targeted the interests of the Nida Tounes parliamentary bloc and the leadership of both Nida Tounes and An-Nahda. He also devoted part of his time to preparing his candidacy in the 2019 presidential elections.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote This plan conflicted with the political calculations of the head of state, the leadership of Nida Tounes represented by his son Hafedh Béji Caïd Essebsi and the Islamist party, whose president, Rached Ghannouchi, also considered running for president in 2019.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Ghannouchi has since reportedly renounced his presidential ambitions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, An-Nahda supporters, Tunis, March 2018.Hide Footnote

On 3 March 2018, the head of state reopened consultations with the signatories of the Carthage Agreement to try to establish a new roadmap for the government of national unity (Carthage II). Talks stalled on the question of what to do about Chahed. On 28 May 2018, at a meeting of Carthage Agreement signatories, Ghannouchi spoke strongly in favour of keeping the head of government in office, against the position taken by the president of the republic, Nida Tounes, the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) and his own party’s executive office (its senior decision-making body). Some political activists and commentators interpreted this as tacit support for Youssef Chahed’s candidacy in the presidential election and the beginnings of a major reorganisation of the political landscape.

According to this scenario, An-Nahda, which is pursuing the contradictory objectives of avoiding the limelight of Tunisia’s political scene while gradually increasing its influence, would transfer its support from Hafedh Caïd Essebsi’s Nida Tounes to a new Nida Tounes or another “secular” political party emerging from Nida Tounes and led by Chahed. This could form a genuine counterweight to the Islamist party and oblige it to respect the tacit agreement of 2014, though possibly on more favourable terms.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Nida Tounes and An-Nahda activists, political commentators, Tunis, May-June 2018.Hide Footnote Following An-Nahda’s president’s reversal in late May 2018, the head of state suspended the consultations.

France and the European Union believe that the government’s instability is delaying reform.

On 29 May 2018, in a speech televised at peak time on the main public service channel, Chahed, now backed by An-Nahda, the executive office of which ended up backing its president, blamed Nida Tounes’s electoral rout on its executive director, Hafedh Béji Caïd Essebsi.[fn]“Ce que vous devez retenir du discours du chef du gouvernement, Youssef Chahed”,, 29 May 2018.Hide Footnote On 6 June 2018, he dismissed the interior minister, Lotfi Brahem, former commander in chief of the National Guard who is considered by a number of political leaders and senior officials to be anti-Islamist, and also sacked about a hundred senior security officials.[fn]“Tunisie. Faux coup d’État, vraie crise politique”,, 3 July 2018. Crisis Group interviews, senior public administration officials, journalists, Tunis, June-July 2018. “Limogeages et nominations au ministère de l’Intérieur, attentat de Ghardimaou: Ghazi Jeribi fait le point”,, 10 July 2018.Hide Footnote

On 15 July 2018, in an interview granted to the private television channel Nessma, President Essebsi broke his silence, which had lasted since the suspension of the talks on Carthage II at the end of May.[fn]“Interview du président Béji Caïd Essebsi sur Nessma TV: un couac de communication”,, 17 July 2018. This interview was reportedly conducted without the backing of his official advisers. Crisis Group interview, NGO official, Tunis, July 2018.Hide Footnote He said that Chahed should resign (the position taken by the Nida Tounes leadership) or ask parliament for a vote of confidence (the position held by some senior figures in An-Nahda) if the political crisis continued.[fn]“Caïd Essebsi: Youssef Chahed doit démissionner ou solliciter le renouvellement de la confiance de l’ARP (video)”,, 15 July 2018. The constitution of 26 January 2014 states that parliament can adopt a motion of censure if at least one third of deputies make such a request. If 109 deputies out of the total 217 vote for such a motion, the prime minister must resign. The latter may also request, on his own initiative, a vote of confidence from parliament. In this case, 109 deputies must vote in favour of the prime minister and his government remaining in office. On 30 July 2016, following the head of state’s initiative in forming a government of national unity, Youssef Chahed’s predecessor, Habib Essid, appeared before parliament and was dismissed because 118 deputies voted against him in a vote of confidence. Finally, the president of the republic can ask parliament to schedule a vote of confidence in the government. In this case, the prime minister must receive 109 votes to remain in office. In all three scenarios, the president of the republic’s proposal for a new head of government must receive an absolute majority (109 votes). See Articles 97, 98 and 99 of the Tunisian constitution of 26 January 2014. Crisis Group interviews, politicians, Tunis, January-July 2018.Hide Footnote

On 16 July 2018, the president of the republic chaired an extraordinary meeting attended by the main protagonists of the Carthage II talks that was supposed to decide the government’s fate.[fn]Attended by the president of An-Nahda, Rached Ghannouchi, the executive director of Nida Tounes, Hafedh Béji Caïd Essebsi, the UGTT secretary general, Nourreddine Taboubi, the president of the employers’ organisation, Samir Majoul, the head of government, Youssef Chahed, and the president of parliament, Mohamed Ennaceur.Hide Footnote Following this meeting, An-Nahda’s executive office issued a “diplomatic” communiqué, which several commentators described as designed to reassure its partners, notably the president of the republic.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, political commentators, Tunis, July 2018.Hide Footnote This communiqué called on Chahed to announce he would not be a candidate in the 2019 presidential elections – even though “nobody could prevent him from standing as a candidate” according to the constitution and the country’s institutions.[fn]Crisis Group interview, NGO official, Tunis, July 2018. “Déclaration du bureau politique d’An-Nahda sur les derniers développements nationaux”, An-Nahda, 16 July 2018. In September 2017, An-Nahda had already adopted this position on Youssef Chahed’s candidacy. “Ennahdha réitère son appel à Youssef Chahed de ne pas se présenter à la présidentielle de 2019”,, 17 July 2018.Hide Footnote

France and the European Union believe that the government’s instability is delaying reform and view Chahed as a dynamic politician able to implement Tunisia’s commitments to its donors.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, foreign diplomats, international affairs expert, French journalist, senior government official, parliamentary opposition party official, Tunis, June-July 2018.Hide Footnote A number of foreign diplomats and experts at international organisations believe that the UGTT is mainly to blame for blocking economic reforms, fragmenting the chain of command within public administration and encouraging an explosion of corporatist pay claims, which have generally been met and which place a burden on the state’s budget.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, European Union members, international affairs experts, Tunis, January-July 2018.Hide Footnote

The UGTT, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 for its role in the national dialogue quartet that resolved the political crisis of July 2013, has indeed opposed the Chahed government, particularly on economic and social issues. For example, it hardened its position at the time of the Carthage II talks by declaring that a change in government was a “question of life or death” for the trade union.[fn]“Tunisie: Sami Tahri, le changement du gouvernement est devenu une question “de vie ou de mort”, Tunisienumé, 12 June 2018.Hide Footnote But the UGTT complains that the international community has unjustly accused it and that it has a right to review government strategy in its capacity as a signatory to the Carthage Agreement.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, trade union officials, Tunis, June 2017.Hide Footnote

The question of whether Chahed should go or stay could in principle be settled by parliament, but the protagonists of this crisis are unable to determine exactly how many deputies would vote for a motion of no confidence in the prime minister.[fn]To remain in office, Chahed needs the votes of 109 of parliament’s 217 deputies.Hide Footnote

Pour rester en poste, Chahed devrait obtenir la confiance de 109 députés sur 217.Hide Footnote

There are no guarantees that An-Nahda and its generally disciplined parliamentary bloc will continue to support Chahed.

On 28 July 2018, the balance of forces within Nida Tounes swung in favour of Youssef Chahed and against Hafedh Caïd Essebsi. The ARP approved Chahed’s appointment of a new interior minister, Hichem Fourati, with 148 votes in favour, thirteen against and eight abstentions.[fn]“Vote de confiance à M. Hichem Fourati, ministre de l’Intérieur”,, Footnote The session’s main stake was whether parliament, particularly Nida Tounes deputies, would support Chahed, ensuring the appointment resembled a vote of confidence in the government.

Officially, the almost unanimous support of Nida Tounes deputies for the new interior minister was dictated by security considerations – Fourati’s political independence and three years’ experience as cabinet director at the Interior Ministry (2015-2018) made him, in their view, the best candidate for the job. But their position, debated at length in internal negotiations,[fn]“Coup de théâtre: Nida votera la confiance à Fourati mais somme Chahed de soumettre son remaniement dans 10 jours”,, 28 July 2018; “O. Hattab: Nidaa Tounes accordera sa confiance au nouveau ministre de Chahed”, Réalité, 28 July 2018.Hide Footnote signalled official backing for Youssef Chahed from Nida Tounes and most of the economic lobbies that support it, and represented a defeat for the party’s executive director, Hafedh Caïd Essebsi, and his father, the head of state.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, political leaders, senior public administration officials, Tunis, July 2018.Hide Footnote

Despite this apparent outcome, there is no guarantee that deputies will vote for Chahed or will even attend the session if a vote of confidence in Chahed is put to the assembly. Nor are there any guarantees that An-Nahda and its generally disciplined parliamentary bloc will continue to support Chahed.

The fight between those in favour and those against Chahed therefore continues unchecked, with each camp claiming to be nearing victory in order to gain ground.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Many changes in positions are possible, particularly as there is no clear ideological divide: for example, anti-Islamists find themselves on the same side as Islamists. New controversies may emerge at any moment and weaken either side.

Those on the losing side in recent developments – the UGTT, the Popular Front (a parliamentary opposition bloc formed by left-wing and nationalist Arab parties whose ten deputies present at the vote for the appointment of the interior minister voted against),[fn]“Vote de confiance à M. Hichem Fourati, ministre de l’Intérieur”, op. cit.Hide Footnote and the head of state could react and even join forces. Moreover, the uncertainty in neighbouring Algeria, whose president is one of the key supporters of the consensus between Béji Caïd Essebsi and Rached Ghannouchi – rather than between Youssef Chahed and Rached Ghannouchi – could influence Tunisian politics in 2019. Considering that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika could decide not to run for a fifth term in presidential elections scheduled for spring 2019, uncertainty lingers on his eventual successor and therefore on Algeria’s future position vis-à-vis changes to the political landscape in Tunisia.[fn]Since the end of 2013, the Algerian government has expressed support for the Tunisian consensus on several occasions. This forms part of the strategy of national reconciliation and the domestication of political Islam begun by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika at the start of the 2000s. Crisis Group interviews, Algerian and Tunisian security experts, Algerian academics, leader of an extreme-left Tunisian party and a Tunisian political activist, 2015-2018. Also see Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°164, Algeria and its Neighbours, 12 October 2015.Hide Footnote

Depuis fin 2013, à plusieurs reprises, le gouvernement algérien s’est positionné en défenseur du consensus tunisien. Celui-ci constitue une déclinaison de la stratégie de réconciliation nationale et de domestication de l’islam politique initiée par le président Abdelaziz Bouteflika au début des années 2000. Entretiens de Crisis Group, experts sécuritaires algériens et tunisiens, universitaires algériens, responsable d’un parti tunisien d’extrême gauche et militant associatif tunisien, 2015-2018. Voir également le rapport Moyen-Orient et Afrique du Nord de Crisis Group N°164, L’Algérie et ses voisins, 12 octobre 2015.Hide Footnote

IV. Weakened Institutions and the Drift toward Authoritarianism

The battle for control of Nida Tounes and the weakening consensus between An-Nahda and Nida Tounes has slowed down the work of the parliament, the government and public administration. Dozens of bills are stalled at committee stage and the deadline for voting on the 2019 budget, crucial in the increasingly problematic macroeconomic context, is approaching (December 2018).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, NGO officials, Tunis, July 2018.Hide Footnote There is no sign of any compromise emerging on the appointment of members of the Constitutional Court, an essential step in implementing the 2014 constitution, or on the appointment of a new president of the Independent High Electoral Commission (ISIE), who will be crucial to the organisation of parliamentary and presidential elections.[fn]The previous president resigned on 5 July 2018. See Seif Soudani, “Tunisie. La démission du président de l’ISIE aggrave la crise politique”,, 5 July 2018.Hide Footnote

The uncertainty surrounding the Chahed government’s future is acting as a brake on the machinery of the state.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior public administration officials, Tunis, July 2018.Hide Footnote Many senior public administration officials have almost stopped working by precaution. The appointment of personnel occupying “senior public administration posts” on partisan grounds has occurred more frequently in recent years. The clientelist networks of the political parties have penetrated the administration, dividing it and affecting many senior officials. As the director general of a ministry noted:

We are here to implement the policies decided on by the politicians. But they come and ask us for specific favours, which means we are unable to implement their policies according to the law of the land. Hundreds of appointments to key posts have been decided on the basis of political, regional and family affiliations and some senior officials are aligned with one or the other warring clans. Whether the current government falls or not and whether Hafedh Béji Caïd Essebsi or Youssef Chahed comes out on top will determine whether quite a lot of people have a job or not and could even mean they will have to answer to the judicial system. This explains why, as a precaution, and so that they are not able to be identified as supporters of one side or the other, senior officials have practically stopped work.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior public administration official, Tunis, July 2018.Hide Footnote

This underlying conflict between administrative personnel and political actors recalls that of the second half of 2013, when there was a strong authoritarian drift among senior civil servants and anti-Islamist activists. This stemmed from the conviction, rooted in Tunisian political culture, that only a strong executive branch and public administration are capable of avoiding the alleged aberrations of popular sovereignty (parliamentarianism slowing down decision-making, political parties creating division and conflict, corruption among political leaders, etc.).[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Briefing N°37, The Tunisian Exception: Success and Limits of Consensus, 5 June 2014.Hide Footnote

Voir le briefing Moyen-Orient et Afrique du Nord de Crisis Group N°37, L’exception tunisienne : succès et limites du consensus, 5 juin 2014.Hide Footnote

Yet politicians have taken centre stage since 2013, a trend confirmed by the recent election of 7,212 municipal representatives in a free and democratic vote for the first time in Tunisia’s history and the greater autonomy granted to local government as part of the decentralisation process under way since the adoption of a new constitution in January 2014. But squabbles between political leaders, partly fuelled by the behind-the-scenes influence of businessmen and businesswomen, are gradually reducing their support base.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Blocked Transition: Corruption and Regionalism in Tunisia, op. cit.Hide Footnote A growing number of ordinary people see politicians as venal intermediaries who are only interested in gaining a foothold in the state apparatus to use it to their personal advantage. They hold them responsible for most of the ills from which the country is suffering, particularly the increase in clientelism, rising cost of living and the deterioration of the security situation, of infrastructure and of public services.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, residents of the interior and peri-urban zones of the capital, Tunis, Kairouan region, January-July 2018.Hide Footnote

This could strengthen the position of technocrats, especially those within the security apparatus. More and more Tunisians believe that only technocrats are capable of preserving the state and its institutions.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Such a mindset could favour “adventurism” – namely attempts at authoritarian reassertion – as evoked by President Essebsi in September 2017.[fn]“Entretien. Le président Béji Caïd Essebsi à Assahafa et à La Presse: ‘Le système politique actuel ne peut assurer le développement et la stabilité du pays’”,, 6 September 2017.Hide Footnote

« Entretien. Le président Béji Caïd Essebsi à Assahafa et à La Presse : “Le système politique actuel ne peut assurer le développement et la stabilité du pays” »,, 6 septembre 2017.Hide Footnote

V. Ending the Crisis and Rising to the Challenges

It is crucial to prevent the current crisis, which has exposed the divisions within the political class and weakened institutions, from encouraging unrest or, worse, jihadist attacks, which would in turn harden these divisions and create conditions favourable for an authoritarian takeover. The attempt by several politicians to blame the government and An-Nahda for the jihadist attack on 8 July 2018 near the border with Algeria, which killed six members of the security forces, gave a foretaste of this kind of behaviour.[fn]“Tunisie: Un expert en sécurité écarte tout lien entre l’attaque terroriste de Jendouba et les dernières nominations dans les organes sécuritaires”, Tunisienumé, 9 July 2018; “Tunisie: Opération terroriste, l’UGTT fait le lien avec la crise politique et réclame le départ de Youssef Chahed”, Tunisienumé, 8 July 2018; “Ennahdha portera plainte contre ‘les laïcs’ qui l’accusent de terrorisme”, Réalité, 19 July 2018; “Attentat à Ghardimaou: Ennahdha et le gouvernement pointés du doigt”, Réalité, 8 July 2018.Hide Footnote

The political scene is unlikely to see any easing of the bitter disputes between the various actors in the immediate future. The fact is that the balance of forces between Islamists and non-Islamists is changing, even as Nida Tounes’s structural weakness is exacerbating the fears of political, administrative and economic actors about the growing presence of An-Nahda in state institutions. Moreover, Youssef Chahed’s plan to create a political force that can act as a counterweight to An-Nahda is a long way from becoming a reality. The approach of parliamentary and, especially, presidential elections in 2019 is destabilising the consensus established since the parliamentary elections of 2014 and encouraging certain economic and financial pressure groups, whose interests could be prejudiced by a change in the political landscape, to seek confrontation.

The main political parties and trade unions should come to an agreement on how to end the crisis while remembering that the constitution provides that only parliament has the power to decide Youssef Chahed’s fate.

On the one hand, the UGTT leadership should try to preserve social peace in the name of national unity rather than opt for confrontation by supporting potentially explosive protests when the summer lull ends in September. Tunisia has no choice but to fully comply with the increasingly firm recommendations made by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which is concerned about containing inflation and stemming the rise in public debt. Some of these recommendations will have a significant social cost in the short term. Freezing or reducing the state’s wage bill will limit the government’s capacity to buy social peace by distributing public sector jobs. The increased fluctuation of foreign currency exchange rates will further reduce the purchasing power of Tunisians.[fn]“Tunisia: Third Review under the Extended Fund Facility, and Request for Waiver of Applicability and Modification of Performance Criteria”, International Monetary Fund, Middle East and Central Asia Department, 10 July 2018, Crisis Group interviews, economics experts, members of international financial institutions, Tunis, June-July 2018.Hide Footnote

« Tunisia: Third Review under the Extended Fund Facility, and Request for Waiver of Applicability and Modification of Performance Criteria”, Fonds Monétaire International, Département du Moyen-Orient et de l’Asie, 10 juillet 2018. Entretiens de Crisis Group, experts en économie, membres d’institutions financières internationales, Tunis, juin-juillet 2018.Hide Footnote

The formation of a government of “technocrats” would be a solution of last resort.

On the other hand, the government should speed up ministerial work and help prepare the forthcoming elections. The ARP should create the institutions provided for in the constitution of January 2014 (Constitutional Court and other independent constitutional bodies). It should appoint a new ISIE president who has the required competence, integrity and impartiality. It should also push for the adoption of legislation currently stalled in committees.

Should Chahed be forced to step down and if this is accompanied by social and political tensions provoked by the debate about the composition of a new government of national unity, the formation of a government of “technocrats” would be a solution of last resort.

Although this would be an admission of the failure of the political class, it would reassure those senior public officials who believe that political parties have subverted the chain of command in ministerial departments for clientelist and electoral ends. Moreover, it would probably help assuage the resentment of large sectors of the population, whose attitude recently changed from “indifference to distrust of politicians”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Tunisian journalist, Tunis, July 2018.Hide Footnote

By temporarily withdrawing from government, the main political parties would no longer be able to hold governance hostage. They would have the necessary time to deal with their internal problems – particularly at Nida Tounes’s congress, which might be held at the start of 2019 – and focus on preparing new political programs. In doing so, they could spark a more in-depth debate on the causes of the current crisis – the conflicting legitimacies of the head of state and the head of government, the increase in clientelism and the growing influence of shadowy power-brokers, the excessive personalisation of political negotiations channels, the failure to reform the public administration and reflect on its relationship with political leaders – in order to avoid repeating past mistakes.[fn]Crisis Group reports, Blocked Transition: Corruption and Regionalism in Tunisia and Stemming Tunisia’s Authoritarian Drift, both op. cit.Hide Footnote

Rapports de Crisis Group, La transition bloquée : corruption et régionalisme en Tunisie et Endiguer la dérive autoritaire en Tunisie, tous deux op. cit.Hide Footnote

VI. Conclusion

For the ordinary citizen, whether Youssef Chahed continues as head of government and his eventual victory against Hafedh Caïd Essebsi are secondary issues. The priority is for political parties to demonstrate that they have rediscovered the sense of the state and that stable and effective executive and administrative authorities rise above political squabbling and strengthen confidence in institutions.

Tunis/Brussels, 2 August 2018

Demonstrators hold flares during a demonstration against a bill that would protect those accused of corruption from prosecution on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, Tunisia on 13 May 2017. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi
Report 180 / Middle East & North Africa

Stemming Tunisia’s Authoritarian Drift

The seventh anniversary of the 14 January 2011 Tunisian uprising is overshadowed by dangers of political polarisation and an illusory nostalgia for strong, centralised government. To save the sole successful Arab transition, the governing coalition should enact promised reforms, create a Constitutional court and hold long-delayed local elections.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

What’s the issue? As the seventh anniversary of the 2011 Tunisian uprising approaches, the country is drifting back toward its old authoritarian reflexes. Much of this is due to the failure of nationalist and Islamist partners in Tunisia’s coalition government to implement the January 2014 constitution.

Why does it matter? The authoritarian drift is accompanied by nostalgia for ex-President Ben Ali’s misrule. Tunisia has a special responsibility to stand up to this tendency, to avoid new jihadist violence, to prevent a return to political polarisation and to sustain its role as the sole Arab state sticking to a peaceful, more democratic course since the 2011 Arab Uprisings.

What should be done? To prevent potential violence, Tunisia’s leaders need to go forward, not backwards. They must refocus on strengthening institutions, the creation of a Constitutional court, the setting up of independent oversight bodies and the holding of much-delayed local elections in 2018.

Executive Summary

The ongoing efforts to maintain the parliamentary and government coalition be-tween the nationalist Nida Tounes and the Islamist An-Nahda are delaying the implementation of Tunisia’s constitution and weakening its institutions. As the economy falters, nostalgia is spreading for a strong state modelled on the former regime. But to strengthen the state and respond to unexpected turns of events, such as new large-scale jihadist attacks, out-of-control protests or the temporary or permanent absence of the president, the country must consolidate its institutions by respecting and implementing its constitution. The current drift toward authoritarianism has little chance of successfully establishing a Ben Ali-style regime, given the many socio-economic and political divisions and the newfound freedom enjoyed by the media over the past seven years. Any attempt to recreate an atmosphere of fear among the population would meet with fierce resistance. The government would not become any more effective and suppressed conflicts would end up resurfacing in more violent forms.

Since the legislative and presidential elections of late 2014, the parliamentary and government coalition led by Nida Tounes and An-Nahda has greatly alleviated political polarisation. But these two pivotal parties must surmount a number of challenges if they are to keep their coalition alive. As former enemies turned partners, they are struggling to conserve their political identity and internal cohesion; conflicts surface in line with the strengthening or weakening of their respective powers of negotiation within the partnership. The resulting tensions, against a backdrop of mutual mistrust, are contributing to an indefinite postponement of the reforms promised by the constitution: the establishment of a new Constitutional court, independent constitutional authorities, elected regional councils and increasing parliamentary autonomy.

Since the legislative and presidential elections of late 2014, the parliamentary and government coalition led by Nida Tounes and An-Nahda has greatly alleviated political polarisation.

Conversely, when the coalition is faring well, Nida Tounes and An-Nahda seek a political duopoly to the detriment of the parliament’s autonomy and existing independent administrative institutions. Rached Ghannouchi, An-Nahda’s president, and Béji Caïd Essebsi, the head of state and founder of Nida Tounes, who continues to stand in occasionally as party leader, are personalising the channels of political debate and crisis management. Essebsi in particular is presidentialising the regime and legitimising voices calling for amendments to the 2014 constitution to expand his prerogatives.

Meanwhile, the implementation of essential aspects of the 2014 constitution continues to face delays. The Constitutional court, designed to play a crucial role in case of a political and institutional crisis, has not yet been set up. The independent authorities embodying the principles of integrity, impartiality and neutrality, conceived in the afterglow of the 2010-2011 uprising to address the public administration’s problems, are still non-existent, and the independent administrative bodies that have been established lack any real autonomy. Municipal elections likely to test the coalition (depending on the two dominant parties’ performance at the ballot box, abstention levels, and the possible emergence of new political forces) and significantly increase the number of elected representatives have been postponed four times. The decentralisation process has become bogged down: it should have led to the election of regional councils, but politicians and high-level public officials fear that it will weaken central government.

As the gap widens between constitutional principles and the current political reality, any discussion of constitutional amendments – as proposed by the head of state with the support of a number of political figures – would lead to a resumption of antagonisms at a time when support is growing for authoritarian regimes both in Tunisia and around the world. Opposition by the Islamist party (the main parliamentary grouping) to all constitutional amendments that question the regime’s parliamentary nature would trigger a more violent polarisation than that seen in 2013. If it agrees to changes, the centralisation of power in the hands of the presidency could significantly harden the regime and create more problems than solutions. It is not worth opening this Pandora’s box.

Tunisia is entering a period of electoral uncertainty, with municipal elections scheduled for 2018, and legislative and presidential elections for 2019. The current coalition, which theoretically could cede its place to a new majority, should accelerate the reforms planned as part of the constitution, while improving conditions for a peaceful handover of political power. It remains essential to:

  • hold municipal elections in 2018 and, in the short term, to ensure the proper functioning of the Independent High Electoral Commission (ISIE), responsible for organising these elections, as well as the legislative and presidential elections in 2019;
  • set up the Constitutional court as soon as possible;
  • create fully empowered independent constitutional authorities;
  • and increase parliament’s financial and administrative autonomy.

Tunis/Brussels, 11 January 2018

Stemming Tunisia’s Authoritarian Drift

Tunisia Senior Analyst Michaël Béchir Ayari argues that to save Tunisia's transition the governing coalition should enact promised reforms, create a Constitutional court and hold long-delayed local elections. CRISIS GROUP

I. An-Nahda and Nida Tounes: Cooperation in Competition

In February 2015, a number of Nida Tounes militants and voters viewed the establishment of a coalition with the Islamist party An-Nahda as a betrayal, which, in their eyes, was incompatible with the identity of their political group.[fn]Nida Tounes (Call for Tunisia) is a political party originally constituted in April 2012 and led by Béji Caïd Essebsi. It groups supporters of the old regime, worker’s party supporters and liberals, who feared the lack of a political structure able to challenge the disciplined Islamists of An-Nahda (Renaissance Party), then at the head of the governmental alliance known as the Troika (2011-2014). See also Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Briefing N°44, Elections in Tunisia: Old Wounds, New Fears, 19 December 2014.Hide Footnote Initially, this weakened Nida Tounes, which split into two factions competing to control the party. On the one hand, there was the anti-Islamist-leaning faction led by Mohsen Marzouk, the electoral campaign manager of the president of the republic and leader of Nida Tounes, Béji Caïd Essebsi, who had been promoted to the post of minister-counsellor to the president at the beginning of January 2015. On the other, Hafedh Béji Caïd Essebsi, the president’s son, led the other faction, which supported both the alliance and consensus with the Islamist group.[fn]In 2015, several members of this faction even mentioned the creation of a political front justified by the joint heritage of Abdelaziz Thaalbi, founder of the national movement in the 1920s. He was presented as a blend between the secularist and Western philosophy of Nida Tounes and the Arabo-Islamism of An-Nahda. See Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°168, Tunisia: Transitional Justice and the Fight against Corruption, 3 May 2016.Hide Footnote The party’s officials joined the latter group, believing that the president had broken his word by excluding them from the executive power.

In January 2016, the latter faction won the struggle, resulting in the division of Nida Tounes, the departure of Mohsen Marzouk – who then founded his own breakaway political group (Machrou Tounes – Project for Tunisia) – and weaker political clout in Parliament for Nida Tounes, dropping from 89 MPs at the beginning of 2015 to 56 at the end of 2017.

Unlike Nida Tounes, An-Nahda was not divided by its entry into the coalition, even historic splits resurfaced. Internal dissent increased as a result of its efforts to make its image more compatible with the “secularist” identity of the alliance, particularly under the influence of regional and international trends that were unfavourable to political organisations borne of the Muslim Brotherhood movement.[fn]Mourad S., “Tunisie: Recomposition du paysage politique, naissance d’une coordination entre Nidaa Tounes, Ennahdha et UPL”, Tunisie numérique, (, 11 November 2017.Hide Footnote  An-Nahda was compelled to make a greater number of concessions than Nida Tounes and to demonstrate its loyalty to its coalition partner more actively. This generated numerous conflicts in the party, taking up both the time and energy of most of its officials.[fn]Generally speaking, the conflicts are related to the imposition of the new political approach that aims to centralise power around Rached Ghannouchi and his followers, excluding other historic militants. Crisis Group interviews, An-Nahda militants and sympathisers, Tunis, 2016-2017.Hide Footnote

En général, les conflits sont liés à l’imposition de la nouvelle ligne politique qui passe par la centralisation du pouvoir autour de Rached Ghannouchi et de ses fidèles à la direction et la mise à l’écart des autres militants historiques. Entretiens de Crisis Group, militants et sympathisants d’An-Nahda, Tunis, 2016-2017.Hide Footnote

In May 2016, during its 10th congress, An-Nahda adopted a new strategy, bringing the party’s focus onto strictly political activities (ie on gaining power and exercising it), and theoretically delegating its cultural, social and religious activities to a series of associations loosely connected to its political core. The party stepped up the number of declarations it made concerning its move away from political Islam, its “separation of politics and religion” and its shift away from the “Islamist” label, adopting instead that of “Muslim democrats”.[fn]Frédéric Bobin, “Rached Ghannouchi: Il n’y a plus de justification à l’islam politique en Tunisie”, Le Monde, 19 May 2016.Hide Footnote

In order to make joint work at the Assembly and Council of Ministers easier, the Islamist party’s leaders handed higher-ranking posts in the party and government to more discreet and consensual activists over historic militants.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°177, Blocked Transition: Corruption and Regionalism in Tunisia, 10 May 2017.Hide Footnote  The grassroots felt marginalised and constantly denounced the leadership’s frequently authoritarian attitude, its downplaying of the Islamist identity of the party, its subordinate stance to Nida Tounes and its eager engagement – and in some cases, collaboration – with representatives of the old regime who had been involved in the eradication of the party during the first half of the 1990s.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Former RCD leader, An-Nahda militants, Tunis, October-November 2017.Hide Footnote

Entretiens de Crisis Group, ancien dirigeant du RCD, militants d’An-Nahda, Tunis, octobre-novembre 2017.Hide Footnote

Contrairement à Nida Tounes, l’entrée en coalition d’An-Nahda ne l’a pas di-visé, même s’il a réactivé ses clivages historiques.

The memory of ideological confrontations and repression between Islamists and anti-Islamists has fuelled the fears shared by both main parties of the coalition. In Nida Tounes, high-profile activists and intellectuals from the Arab nationalist far-left or from the Democratic Constitutional Rally (“RCD”, former President Ben Ali’s dissolved party), who had experienced the radical Islamist and “fundamentalist” period of An-Nahda during the 1980s, have fed these concerns.[fn]Sami A. Abou Sahlieh, “Le mouvement tunisien de la tendance islamique, la loi islamique et les droits de l’homme”, Annuaire de l’Afrique du Nord, Vol. XXXV, 1996.Hide Footnote In An-Nahda, the trauma of mass arrests and torture – backed or endorsed at the time by individuals who are now members of Nida Tounes – is still very vivid, particularly among grassroots militants.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Psychologists specialised in torture-related treatment, An-Nahda militants, Tunis, October-November 2017.Hide Footnote

These mutual preoccupations resurface dramatically whenever one or the other party increases its negotiating power in the coalition. Any imbalance of power between the two political organisations fuels the (often irrational) fear of a collapse of the alliance. Moreover, each party’s negotiating power – based on their respective electoral weight – varies depending on sudden incidents that disrupt the coalition’s normal operation.

Thus, whenever a jihadist attack hits the country (as occurred three times in 2015), Islamist and anti-Islamist polarisation plays out in the media landscape, al­though ordinary citizens pay much less attention to it than they did during the second half of 2013. An-Nahda has fewer relays in the press than the anti-Islamists (far-left, Arab nationalists, Nida Tounes dissidents or even members of said party) do. With the backing of supporters of the coalition who are influential in the media, it has nonetheless managed to dampen the aftershock of every attack, countering accusations of laxity or even complicity with jihadist violence under the Troika (2011-2014), thus demonstrating the coalition’s ability to reduce polarisation.

However, every campaign that accuses the Islamist party of bearing responsibility for jihadist violence puts it on the defensive.[fn]This was also the case at the end of December 2016, in the aftermath of an attack in Berlin perpetrated by a Tunisian national. As a result, the imminent return of jihadists from conflict zones back to Tunisia was vehemently denounced. In November 2017, a campaign accusing the Islamist party of having actively participated in sending Tunisian fighters to conflict zones was launched. “Tunisie: Après Issam Dardouri, Leila Chettaoui apporte des précisions sur l’implication d’Ennahdha”, Direct Info, (, 22 November 2017.Hide Footnote An-Nahda’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi, then taps into the fears of its grassroots militants to justify the need for the alliance, which “protects the existence of the party”, as well as the support for President Essebsi’s initiatives, presented as the last remaining bulwark against those wishing to eradicate the party.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, An-Nahda members and sympathisers, politicians, community activists, Tunis, 2015-2017.Hide Footnote

Entretiens de Crisis Group, membres et sympathisants d’An-Nahda, responsables politiques, militants associatifs, Tunis, 2015-2017.Hide Footnote

It is true that An-Nahda benefits from the lack of internal consistency and repeated crises in Nida Tounes, and sometimes even contributes covertly to them.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, An-Nahda leader, community activists, Tunis, Kasserine, Medenine, 2015-2017.Hide Footnote Thus, at the beginning of 2016, the resignation of 22 members of Nida Tounes (out of a total of 86) from the party and parliamentary bloc caused it to lose its majority to An-Nahda at the Assembly (69 members). In the wake of this event, Ghannouchi, invited to the Nida Tounes congress, took the floor and compared Tunisia to a bird, with An-Nahda and Nida Tounes acting as its wings.[fn]Aymen Gharbi, “Tunisie: Quand la métaphore de l’oiseau de Rached Ghannouchi est tournée en dérision”, Huffington Post Maghreb (, 12 January 2016.Hide Footnote

Yet, despite the fact that An-Nahda’s leverage within the alliance nominally increased, it is limited by criteria defined by Essebsi in agreement with Ghannouchi, who “constantly fears that the head of state will turn against him”, as an opposition party official from Ettayar (“Democratic Current”) concluded.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Democratic Current leader, Tunis, November 2017. The Democratic Current is a political party founded in May 2013 by Mohamed Abbou, a former leader of the Congress for the Republic (CPR), a party led by former President of the republic Moncef Marzouki. It is represented by three members in parliament.Hide Footnote As its support from abroad seemed weak, An-Nahda has opted to protect its nepotistic and regionalist balance with the non-Islamist political forces, which provided it with a minority position in trade bodies, trade unions, the security forces, banking institutions, public enterprises and private oligopolies.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Blocked Transition, op. cit.Hide Footnote Rapport de Crisis Group, La transition bloquée, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Despite their rivalry, as pivotal parties in the coalition, Nida Tounes and An-Nahda have sometimes acted as a duopoly.

An-Nahda’s leadership is indeed heavily affected by the degradation of the international and regional context for all political groups born of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. The election of Donald Trump in the U.S.; changes in the military balance in Libya, which had shifted to Field Marshall Haftar, supported by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt; the ‘wait-and-see’ stance of Turkey and Algeria, both focused on their domestic issues; and the diplomatic and economic offensive against Qatar, a close ally of the Islamist party, are just a few examples of these unfavourable geopolitical reconfigurations. Combined with national political constraints, these prevented An-Nahda from fully benefiting from Nida Tounes’ weaknesses, making that the party’s bargaining power remain below its electoral and political weight in the alliance.[fn]Indeed, following the two last cabinet changes (Chahed I in September 2016 and Chahed II in September 2017), An-Nahda increased its portfolio (six ministries and state secretariats out of a total of 36), gaining more ground in the ministries dealing with economic matters. However, the most important directorates of ministries relating to national sovereignty (ie defence, interior and foreign affairs) seem to be reserved for non-Islamists, in accordance with the agreements struck by Essebsi et Ghannouchi. Crisis Group interviews, An-Nahda leaders, top civil servants, community activists, Tunis, 2015-2017.Hide Footnote

Despite their rivalry, as pivotal parties in the coalition, Nida Tounes and An-Nahda have sometimes acted as a duopoly. On several occasions, Ghannouchi supported the draft law of the president of the republic on economic and financial reconciliation, despite vivid criticism against the bill.[fn]Eric Gobe, “La Tunisie en 2015: La présidentialisation de l’impuissance politique?”, L’année du Maghreb, N°15 (2016), pp. 281-307.Hide Footnote In some municipalities, the two parties defined their polling lists so as to ensure only one of the two parties would win. They agreed to support a single independent list and in 2016, they discussed the option of openly establishing joint electoral lists.

In addition, the two groups distribute posts in regional and local administrations (which are strategic in terms of patronage for the following electoral cycle) among themselves.[fn]On the legal level, these nominations are put forward by the ministry concerned – in this case, the interior ministry because it is the higher authority for officials in the regional and local administrations – and following deliberations at the Council of Ministers. The president of the republic is informed thereof. In practice, the heads of government usually draw up a list of candidates in partnership with the main coalition forces, that they then communicate to the interior ministry and to the president of the republic for amendments. See Law 2015-33 of 17 August 2015, setting forth the high-ranking civil servant employment in accordance with Article 92 of the constitution.Hide Footnote Thus, at the end of 2017, three quarters of the country’s governors and delegates were either members or supporters of Nida Tounes.[fn]Since 2016, due to the lack of elected municipalities, the governors are also responsible for special delegations (provisional municipal councils).Hide Footnote The rest was shared by An-Nahda activists or supporters, and to a lesser degree, independents and members of the main trade union confederation, the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT).[fn]Since August 2016 and the signature of the Carthage Agreement, the workers’ trade union has had more influence on the choice of governors and delegates. The distribution of posts also takes regional balance into account. The regional origin of the families of the administrative officials is important, and does not necessarily correspond to the governorate to which they are assigned.Hide Footnote The two parties also place loyal supporters at the head of public and semi-public companies and institutions, including at the public broadcasting service, where Nida Tounes and An-Nahda share the management of the various channels and are consequently able to influence their agenda.

II. Weakening Institutions

A. Reforms Adjourned Sine Die

The tensions at the heart of the coalition and its component parties is significantly slowing down the implementation of reforms set forth in the constitution, thus weakening state institutions. Moreover, the bolstering of conditions for rotation of power is a laborious exercise for both parties in the coalition due to a lack of mutual trust.

The parties struggled to set up the legal and institutional framework for the organisation of the upcoming electoral cycle (Electoral Law and Independent High Authority for Elections – ISIE). Indeed, they were, and still are, worried that as a result, their current partner will become their enemy, forming a majority and excluding them. An-Nahda supporters often feel concerned that Nida Tounes, by gaining power alone, would corner them into an opposition role and gradually erode its influence in collaboration with the security forces (in large part anti-Islamist).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, An-Nahda and Nida Tounes militants, trade unionists, high-ranking civil servants at the interior ministry, journalists, Tunis, 2017.Hide Footnote On the other hand, many Nida Tounes militants are preoccupied that An-Nahda will impose its ideological hegemony on a readily conservative Tunisian society and that it will disturb the socio-economic balance between the various regions of the country to the benefit of the emerging elite, namely from the south of the country.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Blocked Transition, op. cit.Hide Footnote Rapport de Crisis Group, La transition bloquée, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The disputes between An-Nahda and Nida Tounes have contributed to blocking the establishment of the Constitutional court, a pivotal institution in the event of a major crisis. The parliamentary majority has failed to strike a compromise on the nomination of four of its members to the Assembly and has been unable to elect the president of the High Judicial Council (CSM), entrusted with the selection of another four members.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, lawyers, Tunis, October 2017.Hide Footnote The Provisional Authority for the Review of the Constitutionality of Draft Laws is currently fulfilling the main role of the future Constitutional court, but it does not hold the court’s other prerogatives, which are fundamental in exceptional cases, ie, terminating the president’s term of office as a result of a clear violation of the constitution, arbitration in cases of conflicts of competences between heads of state and government, and determining the provisional or definitive vacancy of the post of president of the republic.[fn]Organic Law N°2014-14 of 18 April 2014 concerning the Provisional Authority for the Review of the Constitutionality of Draft Laws. See also Articles 80, 84 and 101 of the Tunisian constitution. Crisis Group interview, lawyer and community activist, Tunis, November 2017. And see the Tunisian constitution of 26 January 2014.Hide Footnote

Partisan friction has also contributed to delay the vote on the electoral law for municipal elections, initially scheduled for the end of 2016 but repeatedly postponed. Negotiations on the next regional council elections,[fn]Indeed, the constitution sets forth the establishment of elected regional councils. See the Tunisian constitution of 26 January 2014. Crisis Group interviews, journalists, An-Nahda sympathisers, Tunis, May 2017. See also “Samia Abbou: Nidaa Tounes et Ennahdha ont peur des élections municipales”, Shems FM (, 24 January 2017.Hide Footnote aimed at pushing forward the decentralisation process, have also been adjourned sine die. A number of non-Islamist politicians and higher officials fear this process, believing that the central powers are too weak to support it.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, politicians, high-ranking civil servants, Tunis, September-October 2017.Hide Footnote Entretiens de Crisis Group, responsables politiques, hauts fonctionnaires, Tunis, septembre-octobre 2017.Hide Footnote

The disputes between An-Nahda and Nida Tounes have contributed to blocking the establishment of the Constitutional court, a pivotal institution in the event of a major crisis.

The local elections are politically important, which explains the disputes that they generate. In addition to strengthening democratic processes locally by significantly increasing the number of elected officials (approximately 7,150 in the entire republic), they may have a significant impact on the coalition members’ negotiating powers. If An-Nahda wins a high number of municipalities, it could request a ministerial reshuffle that would better correspond to its new electoral weight.

Moreover, these elections would enable the winning parties to consolidate their patronage networks, and consequently their voter base, in order to fare better in the national election cycle at the end of 2019 (parliamentary and presidential elections). To be sure, they will not be able to launch true local development policies, due to the lack of financial autonomy and chronic shortage of means in the municipalities.[fn]Héla Yousfi, “Redessiner les relations Etat/collectivités locales en Tunisie: enjeux socio-culturels et institutionnels du projet de décentralisation”, Papiers de Recherche AFD, N°2017-47, June 2017.Hide Footnote But they could, for example, make use of the former RCD networks that are very powerful in rural areas, provide social housing and lease municipal farming land to their supporters or approve urban planning projects that raise the value of the surrounding land in their favour.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, politician, political analyst, inhabitants of the Kairouan governorate, Tunis, Kairouan governorate, September-October 2017.Hide Footnote

In February 2017, an increase in the belief that Nida Tounes and several peripheral parties could win the elections in a large number of municipalities, as well as the reiteration of Algeria’s support of a “reconciliation” and “consensus” in Tunisia, permitted the adoption of the electoral law organising the municipal elections. The disputes then shifted to the control of the management of the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE).[fn]This support was reiterated during Essebsi’s and Ghannouchi’s respective visits to Algiers, on 15 December 2016 and 22 January 2017. Crisis Group interviews, politicians, Tunis, January 2017.Hide Footnote In May 2017, this pushed the ISIE’s president, Chafik Sarsar, to resign, which he attributed to excessive political pressure.[fn]“Sarsar fait part de pressions et pose des conditions pour le retrait de sa démission”, Tunis Afrique Presse (, 11 May 2017. Hide Footnote His post remained vacant until 14 November 2017, date on which the Assembly elected a new and more consensual president, Mohamed Tlili Mansri.

Consequently, in September 2017, the local elections were adjourned once more. An-Nahda accepted this,[fn]According to the ISIE, the municipal elections should take place on 25 March 2018. “Tunisie-ISIE: Les élections municipales auront bien lieu le 25 mars 2018”, African Manager (, 21 November 2017.Hide Footnote despite the discontent of its grassroots militants who had invested a great deal in the elections with the consent of their leaders, and the party even requested another adjournment to the ISIE with Nida Tounes in December 2017.[fn]“La coalition gouvernementale demande le report des municipales”, Kapitalis (, 13 December 2017. On 16 December 2017, the ISIE set a new date for said elections: 6 May 2018. “Tunisie: les municipales reportées au 6 mai 2018”, Agence France Presse, 16 December 2017.Hide Footnote

Even if, officially, these adjournments were encouraged by smaller political parties who argued that the “Code of Local Authorities defining the mission and prerogatives of the future municipalities” had not yet been adopted and that the ISIE had no president,[fn]Mourad S., “Tunisie [Vidéo]: Huit partis politiques demandent le report des élections municipales”, Tunisie numérique (, 5 September 2017.Hide Footnote unofficially, the fact that An-Nahda was the favourite party was decisive.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, politicians, journalists, official at the interior ministry, inhabitant of the Kairouan governorate, Tunis, Kairouan governorate, September 2017. The Islamist party was indeed the only one that had been able to complete its lists before the December 2017 deadline scheduled in April 2017. It presented candidates in the 350 municipalities of the country, managing to respect diversity criteria set forth in the electoral law.[fn]The organic law N°2017-7 of 14 February 2017, which amended and supplemented the organic law N°2014-16 of 26 May 2014 on elections and referendums, listed a set of criteria allowing a better representation of women, young people (under 35 years old) and candidates with physical disabilities and in possession of a disability card. With regard to women, nominations for membership of municipal and regional councils must be made based on the principle of parity between women and men as well as the rule of the alternation between them on the list.  “Even Nida Tounes wasn’t able to do so”, stated a party supporter.[fn]Crisis Group interview, An-Nahda sympathiser, Tunis, September 2017. Entretien de Crisis Group, sympathisant d’An-Nahda, Tunis, septembre 2017.Hide Footnote

B. Partisan Control of the Independent Administrative Bodies

An-Nahda and Nida Tounes are also distorting the roles of independent administrative bodies[fn]These bodies are “entrusted with supervision or regulation tasks formerly under the responsibility of ‘ordinary’ administrations”. See Pierre Rosanvallon, La légitimité démocratique, (Paris, 2008), p. 121.Hide Footnote by placing their candidates there, who then defend partisan interests, giving fodder to criticism from the opposition parties and civil society, which claim there is a “return to authoritarianism”.[fn]Aziz Krichen, “Essebsi et Ghannouchi tombent le masque”, Huffington Post Maghreb (, 25 September 2017.Hide Footnote Indeed, the constitution sets forth the creation of five independent constitutional bodies to uphold the principles of integrity, impartiality and neutrality that, in the aftermath of the 2010-2011 uprising, most political forces believed to be the antidotes against the ills of the public administration.[fn]These are the ISIE, the Independent High Authority for Audiovisual Communication, the Authority for Human Rights, the Authority for Sustainable Development and the Rights of Future Generations, the Authority for Good Governance and the Authority for the Fight against Corruption. See the Tunisian constitution of 26 January 2014.Hide Footnote

Three provisional bodies founded in 2011 are already operational: the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE), the Independent High Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA) and the National Authority for the Fight against Corruption (INLUCC). In 2011, in a revolutionary move, the two first administrative bodies were able to attack the foundation of two of the authoritarian regime’s pillars: the organisation of elections by the interior ministry at the service of the ruling party and the strict control of the media by the regime. Over time, the parliamentary majorities of the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) and of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP) have chipped away at these authorities’ independence, increasing their power over the composition of the bodies, their organisation and their supervision – thus going against the democratic trajectory launched by the departure of Ben Ali, and which the constitution is supposed to uphold.[fn]Organic Law N°2012-23 of 20 December 2012 concerning the Independent High Authority for Elections; see also Draft Organic Law N°2016/30 concerning the Common Constitutional Provisions for the Constitutional Bodies, in which the ARP approved the most controversial articles. See also: “Chawki Tabib: La loi sur l’Instance de la bonne gouvernance votée par le parlement réduit ses pouvoirs”, Shems FM (, 21 June 2017; “Quand l’ARP adopte des articles inconstitutionnels”, Nawaat (, 7 November 2017; “Tunisie: la HAICA se plaint, et porte de graves accusations contre le pouvoir”, African Manager (, 3 November 2017.Hide Footnote

The three remaining independent administrative bodies set up outside the constitutional framework – the Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD) in charge of the transitional justice process, the Authority for Access to Information and the Authority for the Prevention of Torture (INPT) – have encountered similar problems.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of the independent administrative bodies, high-ranking civil servant, community activists, politician from the Democratic Current, Tunis, September-November 2017.Hide Footnote In September 2017, in an interview with the Tunisian press, President Essebsi criticised these independent bodies, stating that they represented a threat to “the existence of the state and its cohesion”.[fn]Hechmi Nouira, “Le président Béji Caïd Essebsi à Assahafa et à La Presse: ‘Le système politique actuel ne peut assurer le développement et la stabilité du pays’”, La Presse de Tunisie (, 6 September 2017.Hide Footnote Hechmi Nouira, « Le président Béji Caïd Essebsi à Assahafa et à La Presse : “Le système politique actuel ne peut assurer le développement et la stabilité du pays” », La Presse de Tunisie (, 6 septembre 2017.Hide Footnote

C. An Increasingly Presidential Regime

Though his interventionism, which is incompatible with the spirit of the constitution but in line with his legitimacy as an elected official voted into office by universal suffrage, Essebsi is trying to monopolise the channels of political discussion, which is personalising crisis management mechanisms that are becoming increasingly dependent on his remaining the head of state.[fn]In its last sub-paragraph, Article 76 of the constitution sets forth that “the president of the republic shall not cumulate his/her responsibilities with any other partisan responsibility”. See the Tunisian constitution of 26 January 2014.Hide Footnote

First, he continued to invest himself in his party, Nida Tounes, by playing the role of occasional mediator and increasing internal tensions by promoting the rise of his son in the party.[fn]In June 2015, he played the role of mediator between Mohsen Marzouk and his son Hafedh concerning a dispute on the date of a party congress. In October 2015, on the eve of an important meeting of the executive bureau following a thirty-member cap in the parliamentary group, he attempted a reconciliation. On 29 November 2015, in a speech on TV, he proposed the composition of a thirteen-member committee entrusted with “the mission to unite two wings in conflict”. Finally, on 9 January 2016, he was the guest of honour at the so-called “consensual” congress of Nida Tounes, during which he called for an in-depth dialogue between the various factions of the party. See Eric Gobe, “La Tunisie en 2015: La présidentialisation de l’impuissance politique?”, L’année du Maghreb, N°15 (2016), pp. 281-307. See also S. Ben Farhat, “La bataille de Verdun à Nida”, La Presse, 12 November 2015.Hide Footnote He actively intervened on the balance and operation of the coalition. He took personal initiatives that had not been the object of a prior agreement in order to strengthen the alliance and keep the Islamist party, Nida Tounes’ main electoral opponent, under pressure. He sometimes promoted rivalry between Nida Tounes and An-Nahda by stressing Nida Tounes’ “modernist” political identity, especially in order to prevent a protest vote against these two pillars of the coalition in forthcoming elections.[fn]“La circulaire de 1973 interdisant le mariage d’une Tunisienne à un non musulman officiellement annulée selon la porte-parole de la présidence de la République”, Huffington Post Maghreb (, 14 September 2017. See also Aziz Krichen, “Essebsi et Ghannouchi tombent le masque”, Huffington Post Maghreb (, 25 September 2017.
[1] Crisis Group interviews, An-Nahda and Nida Tounes militants, Tunis, May-October 2017.Hide Footnote

Since the first half of 2017, Essebsi is in latent conflict with the new head of government.

Even as he defended and promoted the stability of the alliance diplomatically, Essebsi is the instigator of the current national government of unity, which took office at the end of August 2016 and caught all political parties by surprise. This sabotaged the increasingly privileged relations between An-Nahda – which had gained in international credibility after its May 2016 congress – and Habib Essid, head of government at the time.

Because Essid had demonstrated that he could act independently, in line with his constitutional prerogatives (as the top leader of the executive branch), the head of state demanded that he resign. Following the advice of his advisors, Essid sought to respect the provisions of the constitution and requested a parliamentary vote of confidence – which as expected he was not granted.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, An-Nahda and Nida Tounes militants, Tunis, May-October 2017.Hide Footnote Essebsi then managed to impose a new head of government, Youssef Chahed, a member of Nida Tounes but a rather marginal figure in the party, and exercised considerable influence on the composition of the ministerial cabinet.

Since the first half of 2017, Essebsi is in latent conflict with the new head of government. He has tried to withdraw some of his prerogatives by increasing the power of the National Security Council, which he presides.[fn]Government Decree N°2017-70 of 19 January 2017 regarding the National Security Council; Decision of the president of the republic and president of the National Security Council of 30 October 2017 concerning the Standing Committees at the National Security Council; Crisis Group interviews, politicians, journalists, Tunis, May-September 2017.Hide Footnote Chahed had indeed begun creating a new political movement in view of the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2019, positioning himself as the centre of a new political axis that would be able to shift away from political corruption and attract the skills of “technocrats”, while at the same time joining forces with social powers (namely the trade unions). In this way, he hoped to exploit the weaknesses of the coalition and its pivotal parties, which displeased the head of state.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, politicians, journalists, Tunis, May-September 2017.Hide Footnote

Chahed also took advantage of the arrest of a controversial businessman, Chafik Jarraya,[fn]Chafik Jarraya had indeed been arrested by the military security forces for “collusion with a foreign army during times of peace” in the context of a case related to the delivery of weapons for Libyan warring factions linked to the Tripoli government. On several occasions, he supported the Hafedh Caïd Essebsi clan, in view of his gain of power over Nida Tounes structures. He has many opportunities in Sfax and in the south of the country thanks to his connections with businessmen and smugglers from the emerging elite. Crisis Group interviews, Nida Tounes sympathisers, businessmen, An-Nahda and Nida Tounes sympathisers, Tunis, July-October 2017. See also Samy Ghorbal, “Tunisie: aux origines de la chute de Chafik Jarraya, l’homme qui personnifiait l’impunité de la corruption”, Jeune Afrique, 16 June 2017; see also Crisis Group Report, Blocked Transition, op. cit.Hide Footnote which several Tunisian political analysts have described as one of the main sponsors of Nida Tounes’ political bloc.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, political analysts, Tunis, 2014-2015.Hide Footnote He thus declared a “war against corruption”, which An-Nahda and Nida Tounes militants say serves his political interests.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, An-Nahda and Nida Tounes militants, Tunis, May-October 2017.Hide Footnote

Moreover, Essebsi has been holding a rising number of closed meetings with the leaders of the main political powers and trade unions in order to position himself as the sole arbitrator along with Ghannouchi, who does the same on his side. A sociologist has noted that one of the aims is to “make the contents of negotiations less transparent, in order to deflect criticism and to avoid constantly having to justify the usefulness of the alliance or the strategic choices struck in a consensual and discreet manner”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, sociologist, Tunis, October 2017.Hide Footnote

The search for an upstream compromise between Ghannouchi and Essebsi, and to a lesser extent, between the coalition parties, tends to undermine and weaken the role of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP). The president of the ARP, Mohamed Ennaceur, member of Nida Tounes, “manages his parliament like a ministry”, noted the manager of an NGO in charge of capacity-building in the Assembly:

The MPs’ interventions are all for show. Laws are adopted with few amendments. The MPs are disillusioned. They get involved in various projects but have no structure. They have no clear idea of their work. The legislative agenda is imposed on them at the last minute, they do not know it. All transactions between political parties are performed at the Consensus Commission.[fn]This ad hoc commission was founded in June 2013 in order to streamline the compromise between the various political groups at the time of the rise in pro-Troika and anti-Troika polarisation.Hide Footnote Cette commission ad hoc a été créée en juin 2013 afin de faciliter le compromis entre les différentes forces politiques lors de la montée de la polarisation entre pro et anti-troïka.Hide Footnote

As a result, despite the democratic atmosphere that the opposition tries to preserve by triggering controversies, the parliament is at risk of becoming a rubber-stamping assembly for pre-arranged political decisions, as was the case under Ben Ali’s regime. Many MPs “change positions after receiving a phone call”, observed a former parliamentary assistant.[fn]Crisis Group interview, parliamentary assistant under the Troika (2011-2014), Tunis, October 2017.Hide Footnote

For the majority, boosting the role of the Assembly is far from being a priority. On several occasions, Nida Tounes and An-Nahda have struck down the examination of a draft organic law by means of its financial administrative authority, which, according to several experts on parliamentary matters, would have allowed it to obtain the necessary means to operate de facto, in accordance with the constitutional framework.[fn]The Tunisian constitution of 26 January 2014.Hide Footnote The gap between the constitutional principles drafted in a consensual fashion during the first transitional stage and the reality of the political scene today is becoming more and more obvious.

By under-investing in the strengthening the democratic institutions, the political class is keeping the country in an endless state of transition, which is weakening the state. Essebsi and Ghannouchi, through their numerous secret meetings, are maintaining the coalition and reducing polarisation, but are also personalising the channels for political discussion and crisis management, thus increasing the likelihood of violent conflict if one of them disappear. Even if, in his New Year wishes for 2018, the head of state declared that the Constitutional court would be set up during the year, the absence of this institution – the only one with the power to determine the provisional or definitive vacancy for the post of president of the republic – creates the risk of an unconstitutional transition of presidential power.[fn]“Beji Caid Essebsi: 2018 sera une année décisive (vidéos)”, Mosaïque FM (, 31 December 2017.Hide Footnote Such a scenario would strengthen the supporters of an authoritarian restauration.[fn]Crisis Group interview, lawyer, member of an international NGO, Tunis, October 2017.Hide Footnote Entretien de Crisis Group, juriste, membre d’une ONG internationale, Tunis, octobre 2017.Hide Footnote

III. To Establish the Constitution or Rewind?

A. The Dilemma of Political Decision-makers

Political decision-makers face a very delicate problem when doubts appear as to the efficiency of democracy to overcome challenges. At risk of weakening the institutions and losing part of their international legitimacy, they must implement the constitution in accordance with the principles defined by the former parliament. At the same time, in January 2014, the revolutionary wave brought by the so-called “Arab Spring” was receding, the Islamic State had gained phenomenal ground in Syria and Iraq as from 2013, there was a coup in Egypt in July in 2013, and civil war broke out in Libya in July-August 2014.

Simultaneously, political decision-makers must try their best to maintain a coalition which prevents polarisation between “pro-” and “anti-” An-Nahda, but whose current mode of operation is rather opaque and strengthens the opposition of the “revolutionaries” and nostalgia for the authoritarian regime. They must also manage day-to-day security issues, and most especially economic problems that threaten the stability of the country.

Since 2016, the considerable degradation of economic fundamentals has increased the likelihood of uncontrollable riots, meaning that politicians are under pressure to take immediate action. Growth has remained weak (between 1 and 2 per cent). The Tunisian dinar has dropped by one third of its value in a year, without increasing the external competitiveness of national production or narrowing the trade deficit, which continues to rise.[fn]In the first ten months of 2017, it reached 3.2 billion dinars, ie, 5.2 billion dollars. See “Balance commerciale mensuelle”, Institut national de la statistique (INS).Hide Footnote Public wages consume practically half the state’s budget, leaving little for development projects. Ordinary citizens suffer from price hikes and experience an inflation rate that is much higher than the official rate of 6.3 per cent.[fn]“Tableaux de bord économique”; “synthèses mensuelles des principaux indicateurs de la conjoncture économique”, Institut national de la statistique (INS). Crisis Group interviews, economists, Tunis, September 2017.Hide Footnote International bodies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have expressed their concern and regularly underscore their discontent at the situation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, executives from an international organisation, May-November 2017.Hide Footnote

Since mid-2017, despite new regional opportunities,[fn]Taoufik Habaieb, “Omar Behi et 130 opérateurs économiques tunisiens en commando export au Qatar”, Leaders, 14 November 2017.Hide Footnote entrepreneurs from the established elite have suffered from an increase in tax audits that aim to “obtain revenue for the state coffers at any cost”.[fn]Entretien de Crisis Group, entrepreneur sfaxien, Tunis, novembre 2017.Hide Footnote Businessmen from the informal economy consider that the war against corruption launched by the head of government in May 2017 is putting them under pressure.[fn]Entretiens de Crisis Group, hommes d’affaires du Sud du pays, Tunis, juillet 2017.Hide Footnote

The relentless drop in the standard of living for the middle class is exacerbating tensions within the political parties, especially in An-Nahda, whose grassroot supporters suffer from price increases like any other ordinary citizen. This leads the militants to accuse their leaders of being incapable of improving the situation. Daily hardship, inflation and the relative degradation of public infrastructure (transport, health care, education) which are hitting the working-class areas are giving rise to nostalgia for the 1990s-2000s, ie when Ben Ali was in power, making the citizens more receptive to the nationalistic discourse of some representatives from the old regime. These figures are gaining visibility in the media, and they do not hesitate to equate democracy and the defence of human rights with the weakness of the state, support for jihadist terrorism and Western interference.[fn]“Lotfi Laameri s’en prend aux organisations des droits de l’homme et à la directrice de Human Rights Watch en Tunisie, tollé sur les réseaux sociaux”, Huffington Post Maghreb (, 10 November 2011.Hide Footnote « Lotfi Laameri s’en prend aux organisations des droits de l’homme et à la directrice de Human Rights Watch en Tunisie, tollé sur les réseaux sociaux », Huffington Post Maghreb (, 10 novembre 2011.Hide Footnote

B. Reviving an Authoritarian Regime: A Risky and Unrealistic Gamble

The weakening of state institutions lends credence to “anti-Arab Spring” voices which are often nostalgic for the Ben Ali era. They implicitly posit that the only way to save the country is by centralising power and resources in the hands of an empowered executive with a homogenous ideology, and return an all-powerful presidency.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, politicians and senior government officials, Tunis, 2017.Hide Footnote Adherents of this reckless backsliding argue that the institutions created following the departure of Ben Ali are artificial, ill-suited to Tunisian political culture, and dysfunctional. From their perspective, the democratic transplant is not taking hold, as shown by the multiplication of centres of power and corruption and useless debates of politicians.[fn]Habib Ayadi, “Une Assemblée inutile, l’Assemblée des représentants du peuple”, Leaders, 30 October 2017.Hide Footnote This “background noise, according to which democracy is dysfunctional in Tunisia”, as one European diplomat put it, is becoming louder and encouraging some public intellectuals in the media to attack the Tunisian transition as a whole, and particularly the constitution, if only out of populism.[fn]Crisis Group interview, European diplomat, Tunis, October 2017.Hide Footnote

Many politicians and public officials consider that the independent provisional administrative authorities (ISIE, HAICA, INLUCC) are weakening central government.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, politicians and senior government officials, Tunis, 2017.Hide Footnote In a sense this is true, if only as they lack the necessary technical and financial means to carry out the monitoring and regulatory duties they are supposed to carry out instead of the regular bureaucracy. As a high-ranking public official explains, echoing Essebsi’s accusation that these bodies pose a threat to “the existence of the state and its cohesion”:[fn]Hechmi Nouira, “Le président Béji Caïd Essebsi à Assahafa et à La Presse: ‘Le système politique actuel ne peut assurer le développement et la stabilité du pays’”, La Presse de Tunisie (, 6 September 2017.Hide Footnote

These institutions erode the state’s power. They represent a legal and administrative authority, but in fact they have no independence from the political parties or central government. They have exclusive areas of competence, but lack the means to apply them.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior government official, Tunis, September 2017.Hide Footnote Entretien de Crisis Group, haut fonctionnaire, Tunis, septembre 2017.Hide Footnote

By giving them a legal status that confers on them wide-ranging de jure prerogatives, yet without supporting their actual prerogatives, political decision-makers are undermining public administration. In turn, the latter is refusing to work with these authorities, which then defend their corporatist domain.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior government officials, September 2017.Hide Footnote The situation is comparable to the one paralysing the Assembly of People’s Representatives (ARP), subject to the bills proposed by the executive branch yet the necessary financial and administrative autonomy to achieve its role as enshrined in the constitution.[fn]Tunisian constitution of 26 January 2014.Hide Footnote

In the view of some Nida Tounes dissidents and party members, since the current regime operates virtually on a presidential basis, this reality should be reflected in the constitution, as proposed by the head of state, and “move toward a system of majority voting that would have the benefit of a stable majority without needing to resort to a perverse coalition”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Nida Tounes leader, Tunis, October 2017.Hide Footnote

But given the latent polarisation between pro- and anti-An-Nahda factions, opening a debate on amending the constitution would be a risky gambit, creating the possibility that one of these groups will form a majority excluding the other. The constitution’s ambiguity about the prerogatives of the two leaders of the executive can be thought of as a peace treaty between political forces let loose by the 2010-2011 uprising. Attempts to alter it, as one civil society activist put it, “[when] it has not yet been implemented and given that politicians have not given the mixed parliamentary system the means to carry out its work”,[fn]Crisis Group interview, civil society activist, Tunis, October 2017.Hide Footnote may either rekindle ideological conflicts supposedly resolved during the constitutional process (2011-2014), or lead to an increasingly hardline regime.

An-Nahda’s leaders, despite supporting parliamentarianism at the time of drafting of the constitution, are now divided on this issue. Some consider that the regime’s shift toward presidentialism, with all the risks it entails, is already underway and that negotiations are needed to ensure the party has a minority but stable role within an authoritarian regime in the making.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, civil society activist with close ties to An-Nahda, An-Nahda supporters, Tunis, November 2017.Hide Footnote An-Nahda would then wait for better days to take its helm, with many expecting that the 2019 presidential elections will be held during this more auspicious period. Others argue that a presidential regime would allow the dominance of a single leader or party over the future Constitutional court and independent constitutional authorities, and this would signal the end of democracy, a red line they say they are willing to cross “even if half of the party were to return to prison”, according to one party member.[fn]Crisis Group interview, An-Nahda official, Tunis, November 2017.Hide Footnote Entretien de Crisis Group, responsable d’An-Nahda, Tunis, novembre 2017.Hide Footnote

Tunisia’s international partners should continue supporting these reforms, which are the only means of bolstering the state and maintaining long-term stability.

For the time being, the political class has not yet succumbed to this authoritarian temptation, observed by many international analysts and criticised as a “restauration” by various civil society activists who often exaggerate the point.[fn]Sarah E. Yerkes, “Democracy Derailed? Tunisia’s Transition Veers Off Course”, Foreign Affairs, 2 October 2017.Hide Footnote Given the various socio-economic, political and administrative rifts, as well as the freedom of expression gained since 2011, reverting to a Ben Ali style regime appears unrealistic. It would imply that a political force or security coalition could lock down the country and reconstruct the system of surveillance and control over the population that rested upon the defunct RCD (the former hegemonic ruling party, dissolved some seven years ago and whose members are now scattered politically) and the now-fragmented interior ministry.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°163, Reform and Security Strategy in Tunisia, 23 July 2015.Hide Footnote For the time being this option remains technically impossible.

In any case, even by expanding the executive branch and resuming an authoritarian regime, Tunisia would by no means overcome the structural security and economic challenges it faces. On the contrary, such a move would further aggravate political and social tensions. Tunisia would enter a spiral of repression intended to reinstate an atmosphere of fear among members of the opposition and civil society. Freedom of expression would be curtailed, making political decision-makers less responsive to large sections of society, lowering quality of life and heightening the sense of socio-regional discrimination and further increasing the likelihood of a revolt against the state.

Reviving an authoritarian regime would also jeopardise the culture of negotiating and searching for peaceful compromise, an approach that has been strengthened since the former regime’s downfall. Even with a strong executive able to take expedient decisions, the result would most probably be to hollow out the reforms to increase the public administration’s efficiency (transparency, responsibility, improved government-citizen relationships). It would also restrict the initiatives and creativity required for business innovation to increase economic competitiveness. Finally, squandering the democratic credibility that Tunisia gained on an international scale would deprive the country of a significant part of the financial and political support it receives from abroad.[fn]There would be a risk that a large amount of international financial support, accounting for nearly 20 per cent of the government’s budget in 2017, would not be renewed should the country slide back toward the authoritarianism and brutal repression of the former regime. Crisis Group interviews, members of international organisations and authorities, Tunis, 2016-2017.Hide Footnote Une grande partie du soutien financier international qui a atteint près de 20 pour cent du budget de l’Etat en 2017 risquerait de ne pas être renouvelé si le pays renouait avec l’autoritarisme et les pratiques brutales de l’ancien régime. Entretiens de Crisis Group, membres d’instances et d’organi­sa­tions internationales, Tunis, 2016-2017.Hide Footnote

IV. Conclusion

Instead of making a futile attempt to recreate the institutions of the former regime, which would be tantamount to adventurism, Tunisia should consolidate its institutions by respecting and implementing its constitution. Even though the post-Ben Ali revolutionary euphoria has worn off and the coalition is spending more time trying to keep itself alive than implementing reforms, the country continues to move forward, albeit in a non-linear fashion.

But for Tunisia to consolidate its transition and prepare itself for unforeseen challenges, the political class should avoid amending the constitution. Instead, it must find the necessary willingness to establish the Constitutional court as soon as possible, increase parliament’s autonomy, set up effective independent constitutional authorities, and hold municipal elections in 2018. Tunisia’s international partners should continue supporting these reforms, which are the only means of bolstering the state and maintaining long-term stability.

Tunis/Brussels, 11 January 2018

Appendix A: Map of Tunisia


Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.