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Tunisia’s Elections: Old Wounds, New Fears
Tunisia’s Elections: Old Wounds, New Fears
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Tunisia’s Political Polarisation Worsens after First Big Terrorist Attack in Two Years
Tunisia’s Political Polarisation Worsens after First Big Terrorist Attack in Two Years

Tunisia’s Elections: Old Wounds, New Fears

Tunisia’s presidential election highlights the multiple divides that trouble the country and region. Unless the winner governs as a truly national leader, representing all Tunisians and not just his base, current tensions could escalate into violence.

I. Overview

The standoff between incumbent President Moncef Marzouki and former Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi in the second round of the presidential election, scheduled for 21 December 2014, has revealed fault lines in Tunisian society that political elites believed they had bridged with their sense of consensus and compromise. The electoral map emerging from the parliamentary elections and the first round of the presidential election shows a country divided between a north that is largely pro-Essebsi and his party Nida Tounes, and a south that is in majority pro-Marzouki and favourable to the Islamist party An-Nahda. In order to prevent mutual fears from escalating into violent confrontations, the winner of this first free and competitive presidential poll will have to begin by acknowledging the fears of the loser’s electorate. The new president, government and parliament should commit to jointly address the question of regional imbalances and counter risks of institutional deadlock and 0f repression of dissent.

Fed by the occasionally incendiary rhetoric of the two candidates and their entourage, a number of national traumas repressed by years of dictatorship have resurfaced. The myth around the office of the head of state, forged by over a half-century of an all-powerful presidency, has returned in force and is exacerbating an ideological confrontation nurtured by old wounds: the brutal eradication of the Islamist movement under deposed President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali; violent conflicts dating from the independence era (between supporters of the first president, Habib Bourguiba, and those of his sworn enemy, Salah Ben Youssef); antagonisms between social classes; rivalries between established elites (from Tunis and the east coast) and emerging ones (from the south and the hinterland).

Moreover, the respective allies of Marzouki and Essebsi see their confrontation as another battle in a regional cold war, notably over the Islamist question. Tunisia is thus an echo chamber of the ideological conflicts that are shaking the region, from the Syrian trauma and the rise of the Islamic State in the Levant to the violent polarisation in Libya and Egypt. The concerns of all parties – over the return of dictatorship and repression on one side, or reinforcement of the north/south divide and the spread of chaos on the other – are being amplified by the national sensitivity to the fate of other countries of the “Arab Spring”.

As a prelude to a charter of political accountability guaranteeing, among other issues, the preservation of democratic gains and a joint effort for greater balance between regions, the defeated candidate should, for example, address an open letter expressing his fears (and those of the electorate) to the winner, who would commit to respond publicly. Defining the fears of both sides could contribute to calming tensions, in particular if the scores of the two candidates are close.

Such a step could be followed by the commitment of the government, the presidency and the People’s Representative Assembly (the parliament) to address together the most widespread anxieties in society. Their adoption of a charter of political accountability informed by the presidential candidates’ exchange and addressing the fears of both the losing candidate’s base and other citizens would help Tunisia resolve the contradictions between order and liberty and overcome the inevitable challenges ahead. The international community should encourage such an initiative that would seek to prolong the spirit of consensus that prevailed for much of 2014 without masking the genuine disagreements that divide society. This would particularly help reduce the noxious fallout of regional polarisation. In the context of the meagre harvest of the “Arab Spring”, Tunisia remains the last hope for a successful democratic transition. The country and its allies have every reason to ensure that Tunisia continues on its exceptional course.

Tunis/Brussels, 19 December 2014

A member of the Tunisian security forces stands guard at the site of a suicide attack in the Tunisian capital Tunis on 29 October, 2018. AFP/Fethi Belaid

Tunisia’s Political Polarisation Worsens after First Big Terrorist Attack in Two Years

A 29 October suicide bombing in the heart of Tunis dealt a blow to much-improved security since the last violent jihadist attacks in 2015-16. In this Q&A, our Senior Analyst for Tunisia Michael B. Ayari says it has also hammered a new wedge into Islamist-secularist political divides.

What do we know about what happened, and who was behind the attack?

On 29 October, a suicide bomber set off an improvised explosive device in her backpack on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in downtown Tunis – the city's best-known thoroughfare, a few hundred metres from the ministry of interior and the French embassy. The explosion killed her and wounded twenty bystanders, including fifteen policemen who appear to have been the intended target. For now, no group has claimed responsibility for the bombing. The 30-year-old woman – an unemployed graduate with an English degree from a small village near Mahdia, on the Mediterranean, who occasionally worked as a shepherdess – left no indication as to her motive. Security sources have suggested she may have had contact with members of the Islamic State (ISIS), possibly relatives.

How significant is this attack?

This is the first major terrorist attack to take place in Tunis since 2015, a year when multiple major attacks in the capital and other locations shook the country, targeting parliament, members of the security forces, and foreign tourists. Then, the concern was about ISIS and other jihadist groups that had made clear their intention to destabilise Tunisia's fledging democratic experiment. There were thousands of Tunisians who had joined the ranks of ISIS in Libya and Syria, as well as al-Qaeda affiliated groups operating on the border with Algeria. Tunisia is much more secure today than it was then. Since the last major ISIS attack in Tunisia in March 2016 – when Tunisian members of the group in Libya tried to seize control of Ben Guerdane, a trading town on the Libyan border – security forces have greatly enhanced their capacity to go after jihadist groups, in part with international backing. The security vacuum that existed in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising no longer prevails, ISIS has suffered major defeats in Libya, Syria and Iraq, and while attacks against military and police occur regularly on the mountainous border with Algeria, security has vastly improved in the rest of the country.

The attack comes as Tunisian politics appears increasingly taken hostage by a dispute between President Béji Caïd Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed

What impact has the attack had in Tunisia so far?

Beyond the dead and wounded, the most important impact may be political. The attack comes as Tunisian politics appears increasingly taken hostage by a dispute between President Béji Caïd Essebsi and Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, and the Islamist/anti-Islamist polarisation that had peaked in 2013 is making a comeback. It was striking to see some Tunisian media immediately seek to place blame for the attack on An-Nahda, the Islamist party that has been a key partner in the governing coalition in place since early 2015. Essebsi's first statement on the bombing was also telling: "There is a rotten political climate," he said. "We are too fixated on positions and rivalries and forget the essential: the security of citizens". That statement was widely seen by his rivals as seeking to score points against his opponents – and indeed a blame game of sorts is taking place.

What is the nature of the dispute between Essebsi and Chahed?

Essebsi has sought for over a year to dismiss Chahed, but has been unable to muster enough support from both his own party, Nida Tounes, and his main coalition partner An-Nahda to do so. An-Nahda, which had initially backed Essebsi, has switched sides and since this summer backs Chahed – or at least does not want him to step down for the moment. The backdrop to this are looming parliamentary and presidential elections in 2019 (in which both men could run), deep divisions in Nida Tounes between Essebsi's and Chahed's partisans, and the future of the consensus between Islamists and non-Islamists that Essebsi and Nahda leader Rached Ghannouchi were key in brokering in 2014. As a result, on 24 September, after months of simmering tensions, Essebsi declared that the consensus with Nahda was over. The return of sharp polarisation swiftly followed, including explosive accusations by the far-left Popular Front party that Nahda has a secret military wing and had a hand in political assassinations carried out by jihadist groups in 2013.

Tunisia cannot really afford to lack an effective government or to botch preparations for what will only be the second democratic elections in its history.

What is the risk from here on?

The political crisis is paralysing Tunisia. The country seems unable to make the tough decisions to tackle a lingering economic crisis. It is late in nominating the members of the electoral commission that will oversee the 2019 elections. It has also not yet nominated the members of the constitutional court, a crucial institution under the 2014 constitution, widely hailed as the most liberal in the Arab world. The rising political polarisation is making it increasingly difficult for parliament to go through with these crucial steps and is discrediting the political class among ordinary Tunisians, particularly as they suffer from rising costs of living. Tunisia cannot really afford to lack an effective government or to botch preparations for what will only be the second democratic elections in its history.

Will this attack worsen the mood?

It very likely will. The end of the consensus announced by Essebsi appears to have removed political safeguards against excessive polarisation. Among ordinary people I spoke to, it was striking to see that many viewed yesterday's attack as expected, almost an outgrowth of the political crisis. Nahda's detractors interpreted it as a warning shot from the Islamist party. Nahda’s supporters viewed it as a false flag operation perpetrated by security forces and the radical secularist camp to justify a new crackdown on Islamists. Finally, members of the security forces and their backers are seizing on the attack as an opportunity to revive a draft "law for the protection of armed forces" that, in its latest draft at least, appears to grant vast powers and impunity to the police and has been roundly condemned by civil society groups. The attack is encouraging the authoritarian drift that has been increasingly in the air for the past year, and indeed may incentivise jihadist groups, which had every reason to be demoralised after the setbacks they suffered in recent years, to carry out further attacks to exploit political divisions.

The casualty toll in this article was updated on 31 October, up from nine wounded as originally reported on 30 October.