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Tunisia’s Elections: Old Wounds, New Fears
Tunisia’s Elections: Old Wounds, New Fears
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Seven Ways to Steady a Tunisia under New Attack
Seven Ways to Steady a Tunisia under New Attack

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

Tunisian special forces take position during clashes with militants in the southern town of Ben Guerdane, near the Libyan border, on 7 March 2016. AFP/Fathi Nasri

Seven Ways to Steady a Tunisia under New Attack

The Islamic State (IS) attack into the heart of the south-eastern Tunisian city of Ben Guerdane opens up a new zone of conflict. This alarming spillover from Libya 30km away requires a fresh response from Tunisia’s political elite, still struggling to steady the country after three major terrorist attacks last year.

Beginning at dawn on 7 March, dozens of IS fighters stormed into the city and attempted to overwhelm the city’s key security installations. They were countered by virtually all regular and specialised units of the police, National Guard and army. Several hundred troops surrounded the city, taking up positions to defend targeted buildings and scouring neighbourhoods for the assailants.

The death toll was heavy: 36 jihadis, eleven members of the security forces and seven civilians were killed. Although the attack has not been officially claimed by IS yet, it is likely linked to the 19 February U.S. airstrike on an IS camp 170km away in Sabratha, in north west Libya, that killed over 40 alleged members of the group, mostly Tunisians.

The Ben Guerdane attack was repulsed by security forces but marks a new departure. It is unprecedented since the “Gafsa coup” of 27 January 1980, when a raiding party armed by Libya and supported by Algerian military intelligence took control of the central Tunisian city of Gafsa and called for a popular revolt. Tunisia should expect further attacks and prepare to mitigate their impact by bearing in mind seven key points:

  1. This was no simple “terrorist” attack. It was a simultaneous assault on an army barracks, the local headquarters of the National Guard and the city’s police station, accompanied by three targeted assassinations of a customs officer, a police officer and a member of the counter-terrorism unit of the National Guard. It was an attempt at a local insurrection, coordinated by some 50 members of IS sleeper cells in Ben Guerdane. The term “terrorist” would obscure the political objectives of the assault: win the support a part of the city’s notoriously rebellious population by inciting an insurrection even as it takes military control of the city. IS broadcast a revolutionary jihadi message from mosque speakers at dawn and attempted to distribute weapons. In this respect, this week’s attack resembles the events of Gafsa in 1980.
     
  2. On this occasion, IS forces were insufficiently numerous and made tactical mistakes despite their knowledge of the terrain. But Tunisia’s armed forces will not always have a numerical advantage. Tunisia’s army, National Guard and police should redouble their vigilance and rapidly draw operational and strategic lessons. A few kilometres from Ben Guerdane, Zarsis, a nexus of illegal migration towards Europe, or Djerba, a touristic hub and centre of Tunisia’s Jewish community, could be targeted. In the west of the country, jihadis operating in the forested mountains along the border with Algeria could take advantage of any new crisis to attack nearby Kasserine or reach as far as central Sidi Bouzid.
     
  3. The attempted insurrection in Ben Guerdane is not just a Tunisian-Libyan affair, but a regional problem that demands a regional response – in particular a significant reinforcement of Tunisian-Algerian political and security cooperation. The mental geography espoused by IS does not adhere to the borders established in North Africa in the twentieth century. Experts on the group say IS members dream of re-establishing the historic borders of the Aghabid dynasty (800-901), which ruled a semi-independent emirate roughly based on the ancient Roman province of Africa Proconsularis, including Tripolitania (western Libya), most of modern day Tunisia and the eastern half of Algeria. In this vision, Ben Guerdane is a strategic nexus point of a “liberated” zone that would tie south-eastern Tunisia to western Libya. The city’s business life has long been dominated by a parallel economy based on an informal foreign currency exchange market and smuggling; it could become a convergence point between jihadis and regional criminal networks.
     
  4. Tunisia’s political class and its media must absolutely avoid any attempt to take advantage of the attack to settle scores or revive the Islamist-secularist divide. A calm examination of facts is necessary, not polemics.
     
  5. A new national discourse is needed to address regional and social divides, particularly a sentiment of historical exclusion in the south of the country. The attacks over the past year – on the Bardo Museum in Tunis in March, a tourist resort in Sousse in June, and the presidential guard in November – have weakened the old discourse of “national unity” advanced by the political class. Tunisia will have to do more to preserve the culture of compromise and civil society inclusion in 2013-14 that helped political activists of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet win the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.
     
  6. Security forces should react in a measured manner when questioning Ben Guerdane residents who may have lent logistic or other support to the IS raiding party. The scale of the attack means they could number in the hundreds. A wave of mass and indiscriminate arrests accompanied by police brutality could polarise families, feed into residents’ frustrations, and increase support for IS in the future.
     
  7. The Tunisia-Libya border cannot be secured without the close collaboration of the local population, especially the smuggling cartels operating in the area. Trying to combat these at the same time as jihadis would dissipate energy and likely feed local resentment of the state, since so much of the local economy depends on this smuggling. In order to secure their cooperation, Crisis Group has argued that the government should consider the creation of free trade zones at the border that would legitimise at least part of the border trade.

A French version of this article was published by Al Huffington Post Maghreb.