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Tunisia’s Grand Compromise Faces its Biggest Test
Tunisia’s Grand Compromise Faces its Biggest Test
Tunisia in 2019: a Pivotal Year?
Tunisia in 2019: a Pivotal Year?
A Tunisian woman holds a placard reading in French “Tunisia will remain standing”, in Tunis, 18 March 2015. AFP

Tunisia’s Grand Compromise Faces its Biggest Test

In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Tunisia Senior Analyst Michaël Béchir Ayari discusses the political fallout of the 18 March attack on Tunis’s Bardo Museum which killed 23 people, mostly tourists.

Crisis Group: Tunisia is often presented as an exception in the region, a point of hope for balanced progress and democratisation after its early role in the 2011 Arab Revolutions. Should the Bardo attack fundamentally change views of Tunisia’s positive potential?

Michaël Béchir Ayari: No. For now, Tunisia remains open for business and its political transition remains hopeful. It’s true that the museum should have been better guarded, but the police came quickly and finished their mission in three hours. They are seen as having done a good job, in the end. Thus far, political responses to the attack have proved the resilience of Tunisia’s achievement – reflected in the compromise last year between Islamist and anti-Islamist factions on forming the new government.

But the important test is now. This attack has thrown into sharper relief the gap between Tunisia as an example of successful compromise, and the fact that this compromise so far remains purely political. The elite has not yet addressed the problems of society and the reforms that are needed, as Crisis Group has noted.

What do we know of the attackers? What were their aims?

We don’t know anything for certain at this stage. An audio statement has claimed responsibility for the attack on the tourists in the name of Islamic State (IS), but the format is not the same as other audio statements used by IS. Many such groups are competing to prove their determination and capacity for action.

There is another audio message from a second-rank Ansar al-Sharia leader, released on 17 March, calling for a global war, and for the government to free the numerous Tunisian jihadists currently in jail. There is also a twitter account of Ifrikiya al Alam that links to a webpage that extolls the attack, stating that Tunisia’s parliament was the primary target, but that tourists, the “real miscreants”, were a good target too. Ifrikiya al Alam is a cell close to Katiba Okba Ibn Nafa active near the Chaambi Mountain in the West of the country, and publishes statements vowing loyalty to both Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Islamic State (IS). From 2012, their discourse evolved from peaceful preaching in Tunisia (dawa) to an AQIM position affirming the legitimacy of violence against the Taghout (the “impious abetters of tyranny”, by which they mean the security forces). Currently, they espouse a jihadist rhetoric that lies between AQIM and Islamic State.

I can’t say they are shocked, though, because people were prepared for something like this to happen.

What has been the Tunisian popular reaction? 

Most Tunisians are dismayed by what has happened, and condemn anyone behind such attacks. I can’t say they are shocked, though, because people were prepared for something like this to happen. Until now, the popular reaction has been to rally to the banner of national unity, even if some people do fear new attacks, notably if the mounting chaos in next-door Libya spills over the border.

Will this increase polarisation between the Islamist and anti-Islamist camps, which has become a feature of Tunisia’s domestic politics?

Politically, there is no loser and no winner so far. The Tunisian authorities and society have not made the mistake of politicising these dramatic events. Prime Minister Habib Essid and President Béji Caïd Essebsi delivered calm, firm messages encouraging the maintenance of national unity. And the An-Nahda Party, which is Islamist, has reacted responsibly too. As the second political group in parliament, with some members in the new Cabinet, An-Nahda has called for a national conference on a global strategy to fight terrorism, and for the adoption of laws to support security forces during their work.

This is all possible thanks to efforts in the political elite in the past three months to reduce political tensions. If this attack had taken place during the serious polarisation of the second half of 2013, or as described by Crisis Group in the run-up to general and presidential elections during the second part of 2014, the result could have been a dramatic escalation of deadly political violence.

What more should Tunisia’s political establishment do at this point? And what can the outside world do?

Over the coming weeks, the main challenge for Tunisia’s political establishment is to avoid the temptation to revert to the old norm of authoritarian governance, which in the past has proved incapable of maintaining long-term stability. At the same time, Tunisia has to strengthen the legitimacy and efficiency of the judiciary and security forces if the state is to successfully overcome its economic and security challenges.

The positive side of this tragedy is that it has awakened a sense of solidarity with Tunisia in its struggle to ensure that it avoids anything like the fate of its Libyan neighbour.

Tunisia’s great advantage is continued international support. The main political parties use the country’s position in the world’s media spotlight to issue a joint statement calling on the international community to help the country. The positive side of this tragedy is that it has awakened a sense of solidarity with Tunisia in its struggle to ensure that it avoids anything like the fate of its Libyan neighbour.

And if the world values what Tunisia has achieved since 2011, it needs to respond. This aid could be in the form of counter-terrorism advice; it could be training in command and control to assist the often poorly coordinated units of the military and security forces; or it could be technological help in monitoring the vast desert spaces on the Libyan border. The country also needs aid to ensure the socio-economic development and stability of communities living within the border areas.

Since the uprising, a number of Islamist militant groups have gained strength in Tunisian border regions. Among them are Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, Ansar al-Sharia in Libya and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Do you expect more cooperation of the various jihadist groups in the future?

For the moment, there is no unified jihadist movement. Paradoxically, the problem currently is that the jihadist movement is weakening and fragmenting, which is making it more dangerous in some respects. There could be a race for tactical innovation between groups seeking attention, funds and recruits. The Bardo Museum attack could well be the product of such a development. If the claim made in the name of Islamic State proves to be correct, it would indicate a new consolidation. For sure, if the gathering disorder in the region turns to chaos, a catastrophic scenario of jihadi activity cannot be avoided in the medium term.

President Essebsi has declared his determination to counter terrorism. Does Tunisia have the capacity and resources to counter the rise of home-grown threats? 

The president’s statement was a good first step but many challenges remain. It is crucial for the main political, trade union and civil society groups – both Islamist and non-Islamist – to define a consensual approach to public security and for the authorities to adopt a calmer anti-terrorist discourse in order to prevent renewed polarisation in the event of a new attack. The new anti-terrorist law that could assign police tasks in cities to the armed forces — which was about  to be discussed in the nearby Assembly when Bardo Museum terrorists attacked — should be implemented in a measured, considered manner. The format should be a resolute, planned, civilian-led anti-terrorist strategy.

Tunisia must also insulate itself from the regional interventions that we have seen in Libya, including, for instance, air force bombing raids by Egypt. At the same time, Tunisian parties should resist the temptation to invite outside powers to support themselves or their causes, because this will just import Libya’s violent polarisation into their own country.

In the past, Tunisia’s political discourse has been alarmist and focused on terrorism. But there is also a threat from criminal activity. Can you talk about the government’s response to organised crime, and explain the link between it and terrorism?

This is an important challenge. The authorities should define a new anti-terrorist approach that neither triggers anxiety in the population nor targets segments of population indiscriminately, like youth in deprived areas. Terrorism should be approached as a public security issue that can be tackled with firm measures while respecting the constitution and avoiding an over-harsh militarisation of government.

The security forces should clearly define the various threats faced by Tunisia, highlighting the real differences between radical Islamism, violent jihadism and organised crime. Not all violent groups are pure jihadists, using violence for political ends. At the same time, organised crime groups can tempt poor people who have peaceful Salafist convictions. Violent small groups can use illegal and dangerous trafficking as a way of putting down roots in a territory and spreading their ideology. Armed Islamist groups can use jihadist doctrine as a way to justify a lucrative trade.

Six months ago, a Crisis Group report called on Tunisia to strengthen the socio-economic development of border areas. This was to keep border communities from becoming alienated from the state and to counter any temptations to join militant groups. Do you see any such measures being implemented in Tunisia?

The main problem in Tunisia is that the radicalisation of jihadist movement is faster than the political will and financial ability to address socio-economic issues at the country’s borders. That’s why international help is so necessary.

Many Tunisians were convinced that a major terrorist attack was a question of time. This was not just because of radicalisation or arms flowing into the country. It was notably due to a collective fear that the Libya conflict could spread to Tunisia, and due to the growing crisis of confidence between political elites and ordinary citizens over the government’s ability to control the situation. Certainly, public spaces and tourist destinations might have been better protected, but such an attack could have occurred at any time and in any country.

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.