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Tunisia in 2019: a Pivotal Year?
Tunisia in 2019: a Pivotal Year?
Why Somalia’s Electoral Crisis Has Tipped into Violence
Why Somalia’s Electoral Crisis Has Tipped into Violence

Tunisia in 2019: a Pivotal Year?

Divisions within Tunisia’s political leadership are preventing the government from addressing the country’s political and socio-economic challenges. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to support measures that will prevent further polarisation.

Tunisia’s political transition is in trouble. Hopes that the country’s post-uprising leadership would successfully tackle its myriad of political and socio-economic challenges have started to dim. The economy is in the doldrums and the political leadership is increasingly split between Islamists and non-Islamists, both competing for control of state resources. This confluence of problems is stirring a general crisis of confidence in the political elite, and there is reason to fear that the country may backslide from its post-2011 democratic opening ahead of presidential and parliamentary polls at the end of the year.

As Tunisia’s main trading partner, and in the context of its European Neighbourhood Policy, the EU should:

  • Continue its macro-financial assistance despite the government’s slow pace in implementing necessary reforms (eg, pension reform, reducing the public-sector payroll, improving the business climate and greater fiscal transparency, among others);
     
  • Encourage the government to prioritise public-administration reforms, introduce greater transparency in public-sector appointments and transfers, and establish clear rules governing relations with senior administrative officials – all steps that can help prevent further polarisation between Islamists and anti-Islamists;
     
  • Encourage parliament to reach agreement on creating a politically diverse Constitutional Court to ensure its independence;
     
  • Resist attempts to restore an authoritarian regime by, for example, conditioning continued financial support to Tunisia on the legislative and executive branches’ respect for the constitution.
     

An Ailing Economy and Polarisation at the Top

The economy is faring poorly. The Tunisian dinar has depreciated by more than 40 per cent in relation to the euro since 2016, reducing purchasing power, while inflation stands at 8 per cent annually. As a result, the cost of living has increased by more than 30 per cent since 2016, driving households into debt. Regional disparities are growing, and unemployment remains dire. These factors combined have accelerated both a brain drain and capital flight.

These economic troubles occur at a time of severe tensions between President Béji Caïd Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, which have grown over the past two years. Their rivalry has laid bare an old rift between Islamists (mainly the An-Nahda party) and anti-Islamists (represented by Nida Tounes, the president’s party), with Chahed, who originally hails from Nida Tounes relying on the Islamist bloc’s parliamentary dominance to remain in office.

An-Nahda has been in coalition governments since 2011, but from 2016 onward, when Chahed became head of a national unity government, the party has worked hard to strengthen its power by placing a growing number of its supporters in senior posts in the public administration, state-owned companies and government offices and agencies in the capital and provinces. In doing so, it is changing in its favour the composition of patronage networks controlling state resources and access to credit, private monopolies and oligopolies. Over time, this inevitably will reduce the economic predominance of coastal northern Tunisia over the southern hinterland.

An intensifying struggle over resources would further deepen the rift between Islamists and anti-Islamists.

In May 2018, An-Nahda made headway in local elections. It won 28 per cent of municipal council seats (against 20 per cent for Nida Tounes), including in all the main cities. The next month, it took charge of the administration in 36 per cent of all municipalities (compared with 22 per cent for Nida Tounes). This partial victory boosted the party’s political weight, altered the balance of power vis-à-vis its principal opponent, and raised a question mark over the tacit agreement between Islamists and anti-Islamists in place since the 2014 parliamentary and presidential elections. By this unwritten agreement, An-Nahda had accepted less power than its electoral weight would suggest it should have, with just three ministries, none a major one; it had also agreed not to interfere with the established patronage networks, for example by placing its backers in senior executive positions.

Its electoral show of strength triggered a response from an inchoate coalition of senior figures in government, business and professional associations and trade unions, as well as far-left activists and Arab nationalists. They started to pressure the interior and justice ministries to classify the Islamist party as a terrorist organisation, and on the military courts to dissolve it and imprison some of its leaders. They also began reaching out to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in hopes of soliciting these two countries’ support against An-Nahda, whose leader, Rached Ghannouchi, is a leading intellectual figure among the regionwide Muslim Brotherhood, their staunch enemy. The resurfacing of this rift invites a return to Tunisian politics of political competition that has dominated the Middle East and North Africa region since 2013 – between Turkey and Qatar, representing the Islamist bloc, on one side, and Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on the other.

An intensifying struggle over resources would further deepen the rift between Islamists and anti-Islamists. It also would significantly heighten political and social tensions ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections later this year, which could well prove decisive in shaping the country’s political and economic complexion for the next decade. Because of a split in the secularist camp, An-Nahda’s enduring popularity among large sectors of the population and its dominance of governing institutions, the party remains the favourite to win at least the parliamentary elections. Even were this scenario to pass, the Islamists’ power could be circumscribed. It will need to cobble together a governing coalition, and optimally will be willing once again to forgo key ministries and maintain its tacit agreement with the anti-Islamists. An-Nahda’s influence would be further curbed were it to put up a presidential candidate and loose.

However, other scenarios are possible. If tensions come to a head before the elections, violence could get in the way of the electoral process. This could prompt the president to declare a state of emergency, as provided for under the constitution, but without additional constitutional checks, this could put Tunisia back on the path of autocratic rule. For this reason, it is critical that the parliament establish a Constitutional Court, which would adjudicate whether the state of emergency can be extended thirty days after its entry into force. The court should have a politically diverse composition that might help to prevent it from endorsing such a move. Indeed, under this scenario, the absence of a Constitutional Court could plunge Tunisia into dangerous waters.

An EU Role in Preventing a Dangerous Backsliding

The EU is Tunisia’s main trading partner and has provided important financial support to the country (between 2011 and 2017, EU assistance to Tunisia amounted to € 2.4 billion in grants and macro-financial assistance). It has a clear interest in protecting Tunisia’s stability, to fortify one of the only – if not the only – success story to emanate from the Arab uprisings, dampen the appeal of jihadism to Tunisians, and limit illegal migration to Europe. It follows that, despite the disappointing pace of economic and political reforms (pension reform, reducing the public-sector payroll, improving the business climate, greater fiscal transparency, advancing negotiations about the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, creating the Constitutional Court and replacing four members of the Independent High Authority for Elections so that this body can move forward with organising the legislative and presidential elections of late 2019), the EU should continue to provide macro-economic support to prevent the situation from deteriorating even further.

In addition, it should encourage the government to prioritise public-administration reform, render public-sector appointments and transfers more transparent, and introduce clear rules governing its relations with senior administrative officials – all steps that, by reducing the role of partisan patronage would help prevent further polarisation between Islamists and anti-Islamists. It should also encourage political parties to reach agreement in parliament about the composition of the Constitutional Court, thus enabling its establishment. And it should use its influence to counterbalance any domestic or externally-inspired effort to restore an authoritarian regime by making continued financial support to Tunisia conditional on the legislative and executive branches’ respect for the constitution.

A Somali military officer supporting Hawiye opposition leaders is seen on the street of Yaqshid district of Mogadishu, Somalia. 25 April 2021. REUTERS/Feisal Omar
Q&A / Africa

Why Somalia’s Electoral Crisis Has Tipped into Violence

After months of deadlocked talks over elections, the streets of Mogadishu on 25 April witnessed heavy fighting between rival army units. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Omar Mahmood examines the factors that triggered the latest violence – and explores ways to calm the waters.

What has happened?

Clashes broke out on 25 April between forces loyal to Somalia President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed “Farmajo” and those aligned with the political opposition as Somalia’s deepening electoral crisis descended even further into violence. Rival forces exchanged gunfire in neighbourhoods of Mogadishu, including those in which opposition political leaders reside. Local sources indicate that the clashes resulted in approximately two dozen casualties and displaced hundreds of civilians. The fighting subsided by Sunday evening and Mogadishu was quiet the next morning, with most residents staying at home. The situation remains tense, however, as heavily armed rival security units are still deployed in parts of the city, an ominous reminder to all who come across them that fighting could resume at any moment.

The violence comes on the back of the Somali elite’s repeated failure to agree on how to hold an election, with the temperature continuing to rise after President Farmajo ran over his term limit and stayed in office after 8 February. Tensions escalated further this month when parliament on 12 April extended the current government’s term by two years, infuriating the opposition who say that Farmajo’s continued occupation of the presidential palace is unconstitutional.

The immediate trigger for this week’s fighting was the influx into Mogadishu of Somali National Army (SNA) units loyal to opposition politicians. The troops, originally based in Hirshabelle in south-central Somalia, were led in by a commander who shared a clan constituency with former presidents and current opposition leaders Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Sheikh Sharif Ahmed. On arrival, those forces took up positions in areas of north east Mogadishu. Federal government troops tried to retake these positions, resulting in heavy exchanges of gunfire. Amid the chaos, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud said federal forces attacked his residence.

Elsewhere in Mogadishu, government-aligned forces advanced into a neighbourhood dominated by the Haber Gedir sub-clan of the Hawiye, resulting in additional clashes with opposition forces, including those loyal to the dismissed chief of Banadir’s police, Sadiq “John” Omar, who has emerged as a vocal opponent of Farmajo’s attempts to stay in power. Government forces retreated by the end of Sunday to positions closer to the government complex, known as Villa Somalia, leaving the opposition units in control of sections of the capital.

What has the reaction been?

The mood is still very tense. While the federal government initially stated on Sunday that it had successfully repelled “militia attacks”, Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble followed this with a short statement, noting that the government is open to dialogue. But he also encouraged the army to maintain public order, seemingly signalling support for the government incursions into opposition areas of the capital. Somalia’s international partners, such as the UK, U.S., European Union (EU), Intergovernmental Authority on Development and UN, condemned the fighting and called for a return to dialogue. The Council of Presidential Candidates (CPC), an alliance of opposition figures, also condemned the violence, saying forces loyal to the incumbent were intent on resolving the crisis through violence. CPC member Hassan Sheikh Mohamud went further, characterising the events as an assassination attempt against him and opposition figure Abdirahman Abdishakur Warsame.

Any further offensive from the government is likely to spark another round of heavy fighting.

Roble then met with civil society groups on Monday and called for an immediate ceasefire, but thus far the parties have not agreed on a concrete cessation of hostilities and both sides are weighing their next move. Any further offensive from the government is likely to spark another round of heavy fighting. Opposition forces may also look to take control of key economic sectors like the airport or Mogadishu port in any resumed fighting, so as to gain an upper hand. Rival forces might also decide they need to battle for control of major thoroughfares including the Maka al-Mukarama road that leads to Villa Somalia.

Why has this occurred now?

This is the second major outbreak of violence in Somalia’s capital since the onset of a political crisis over its stalled elections and the constitutional expiration of President Farmajo’s mandate. The first incident on 19 February involved government forces firing on opposition demonstrators demanding a swift election. The violence ratcheted up tensions and put the country on edge. Then, after further discussions around the elections broke down, came the 12 April decision by the lower house of parliament extending the current government’s tenure by two years. That deepened distrust between the opposing sides and raised the political temperature to boiling point. While the opposition called for more talks, the lack of progress and diminishing prospects for a resolution of the crisis have since prompted political and security actors to gear up for armed confrontation.

The biggest risk is that continued clashes further fracture the Somali security sector along clan lines.

The biggest risk is that continued clashes further fracture the Somali security sector along clan lines. The 25 April fighting demonstrated how that sector’s cohesion has mostly broken down in the heated political environment. The areas where the latest fighting took place are neighbourhoods where pro-opposition Abgaal, Haber Gedir and Murosade sub-clans of the Hawiye are dominant. A major meeting of Hawiye representatives last week also formally rejected the parliament extension, signalling a degree of unity within the clan that dominates the capital.

At the same time, the Farmajo administration is facing difficulties paying Somali security forces. Finance Minister Abdirahman Duale Beileh revealed on 25 April that international assistance to the government has dried up, meaning it will struggle to continue funding security personnel. One Somali military officer complained to Crisis Group that presidential guard units were paid last week, but soldiers on the front lines in the battle against Al-Shabaab were not, creating further disarray in the ranks of the security services.

How can a spiralling crisis be averted?

The clashes have narrowed the window to get Somalia’s electoral cycle back on track. They also widen the gaping trust deficit between the opposition and government, if not shattering it completely, further reinforcing the need for external intervention to calm the waters as Crisis Group has advocated over the last few months.

Any mediation effort should first focus on getting the rival actors to agree to avoid further fighting. Persuading the opposition to agree to talks in the first place will be tough. The lack of trust between the parties means that neither will readily disarm or remove their forces from Mogadishu in the immediate term. The opposition will also not accept the idea that Farmajo should be treated as a legitimate incumbent, and will argue that he should be considered as just another party to the conflict. The African Union (AU), which has signalled that it will name a Somalia envoy to mediate efforts over the stalled election cycle, should move forward on this with speed, and get efforts to bridge the chasm between Farmajo and the opposition started as quickly as possible.

The AU mediator, strongly supported by the UN, U.S., EU, UK and other partners, should focus on initiating a ceasefire. Under such an arrangement, duelling forces would agree to avoid further offensives while pulling back from contested areas in which they are in close proximity, to reduce the potential for accidental confrontations sparking a wider conflagration. The African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) could help fill any security gaps and provide a buffer between the various factions, though the opposition has already questioned its neutrality, claiming it has lent support to Farmajo. AMISOM, through the AU special representative to Somalia, should make clear that it will play a supporting role to any AU-led mediation effort and will not take sides, to help assuage the opposition’s concerns.

Only when the waters are calmed can any concrete discussions about the electoral standoff proceed. However, resolving the electoral crisis and implementing the 17 September electoral framework agreement, which prescribed the terms of an indirect vote, will require healing and political reconciliation among Somali elites. Ideally, the process of organising the election would also now be opened beyond the original signatories of the electoral agreement, to include the wider political opposition and civil society groups. Allowing representatives from these groups to participate in future discussions on elections could assist in creating a more inclusive environment, and move the process beyond the views of just a narrow section of the Somali political elite.

International actors must signal a willingness to punish spoilers, including through targeted sanctions.

In the meantime, international actors must signal a willingness to punish spoilers, including through targeted sanctions. This might break a cycle where some of the political actors have calculated that outside powers will not go beyond public statements calling for an end to the crisis. Unity amongst Somalia’s external partners is paramount at this critical juncture, and external actors who pursue narrow bilateral interests by backing certain factions within Somalia further risk tipping the balance toward implosion. The U.S., possibly through its newly appointed special envoy to the Horn, should lean on all outside powers to press for de-escalation.  

Somalia is teetering on the brink of a major breakdown once again. The latest fighting highlighted how the worst political crisis in years could easily spiral further downward. If left unresolved, it has the potential to return the country to civil conflict, undoing fragile gains made over the past decade and a half.