Tunisia’s Grand Compromise Faces its Biggest Test
Tunisia’s Grand Compromise Faces its Biggest Test
Tunisia’s Leap into the Unknown
Tunisia’s Leap into the Unknown
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.

Supporters of Kais Saied seut up the Tunisian flag on the roof of a store in front of the riot police, during a demonstration held in front of the building of the Tunisian parliament in Bardo, in the capital Tunis, Tunisia, on July 26, 2021. Chedly Ben Ibrahim / NurPhoto via AFP

Tunisia’s Leap into the Unknown

On 25 July, Tunisia’s President Kaïs Saïed invoked the constitution to seize emergency powers after months of crisis. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Riccardo Fabiani says compromise between Saïed and his parliamentary opponents remains possible, but so does grave violence.

What has happened in Tunisia?

Late on 25 July, following a day of rowdy demonstrations that included reports of looting, President Kaïs Saïed invoked the constitution’s Article 80, which grants the president augmented powers in emergency situations, citing as his justification the collapse of many public services and destruction of government property. Saïed also “froze” parliament for 30 days, revoked legislators’ parliamentary immunity and seized control of the public prosecutor’s office. The next day, he cited the same article to dismiss by presidential decree Hichem Mechichi, the prime minister and interim interior minister whose nearly one-year tenure had become marked by increasing paralysis as the country grew more polarised, as well as the defence, justice and civil service ministers.

These actions have triggered the worst political crisis in Tunisia since the 2011 revolution that brought down its autocratic leader, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, in the first of the Arab uprisings. An angry rejection of President Saïed’s move came immediately from his main political opponent, Rached Ghannouchi, the speaker of parliament and head of the Islamist Ennahda Party, Tunisia’s largest, who called the move a “coup against the revolution”. Other parties allied with Ennahda and representing a majority of seats in parliament also cried foul, arguing that Saïed’s seizure of emergency powers was unconstitutional on two grounds: first, they claimed that he had not fulfilled the requirement to inform the parliament speaker and prime minister prior to invoking Article 80; and secondly, they said he exceeded his constitutional powers in freezing parliament (which Article 80 foresees operating in permanent session alongside the president in emergencies) and stripping deputies of immunity, as well as in taking control of the public prosecutor’s office.

Now there is a serious risk of further confrontation. The direction of events is uncertain, and the president’s action feels like a leap into the unknown.

Popular participation in events in the first 24 hours went through three phases. The first was a wave of rioting in several cities that preceded Saïed’s announcement on 25 July. The rioters were not clearly associated with any single political party, and their ranks included soccer hooligans and other unruly elements. These rallies took on a markedly anti-Islamist flavour, with crowds raising chants blaming Ennahda for the 2013 assassination (allegedly by Salafi jihadists) of two leading Tunisian left-wing secularists, Chokri Belaïd and Mohamed Brahmi. The mobs targeted the Ennahda offices in Monastir, Sousse, Sfax, El Kef and Tozeur, reportedly engaging in looting.

In the second phase, which began later that day, after Saïed announced his power grab, the character of demonstrations changed to one of celebration among more middle-class Tunisians, especially in the capital Tunis, with people dancing, singing the national anthem and shouting: “Long live the president!”

The third phase came the next morning, on 26 July, when the mood turned tense as Ennahda supporters trying to gain access to parliament were stopped by security forces. Demonstrators threw stones and bottles, and a few people were wounded by gas canisters and projectiles.

While clashes between supporters of the two camps have so far been limited, the risk of an escalation of violence over the coming days cannot be ruled out

While clashes between supporters of the two camps have so far been limited, the risk of an escalation of violence over the coming days cannot be ruled out. The president’s next decisions (were he to use corruption arrests against parts of the political and business class, as his takeover of the public prosecution office and his apparent policy priorities might indicate, or order the security forces to arrest key opposition figures, for example) and the opposing side’s reactions (potentially mobilising their own networks against Saïed on the streets) will be crucial.

Was what happened a coup?

While President Saïed’s opponents say his manoeuvres were extra-constitutional and thus amount to a coup, or a “constitutional coup”, Saïed pointed to the constitution itself, lecturing his detractors to educate themselves by taking some law classes. (He was a constitutional law professor before being elected president.)

But whether or not Tunisians and foreign governments deem Saïed’s 25 July action a coup, it was clearly an orchestrated power grab. His close circles had spoken months ago about his desire to invoke Article 80 of the constitution. The demonstrations that framed his actions themselves looked provocative and may well have been pre-planned, even if nurtured by the frustrations of impoverished citizens. A recent controversy surrounding a transitional justice financial compensation of Ennahda activists who suffered during Ben Ali's era had recently stoked further popular anger.

The military has been involved, but only up to a point. Once Saïed invoked emergency powers under the constitution, the army moved quickly to seal off parliament and took control of the headquarters of the state radio-television broadcaster. So far, however, that is the extent of the military’s muscle flexing. There has as of yet been no wave of arrests of opponents, though there are rumours of thousands of politicians and senior officials being prevented from leaving the country, which could indicate future arrests.

What is the main cause of Tunisia’s political polarisation, and will Saïed’s actions resolve or exacerbate it?

Saïed soared to power in 2019 with 73 per cent of the vote, buoyed by his promises to fight corruption and rebuild state sovereignty, which Ennahda supported at the time. But despite this large popular mandate, he argued that he was unable to govern properly due to other parties’ control of parliament and Tunisia’s political system, which empowers both president and parliament. Mechichi, the prime minister whom Saïed himself had put forward in September 2020, increasingly distanced himself from the president, to the point that in January 2021 he dropped the president’s nominee for the all-powerful interior minister position. Even worse polarisation and paralysis ensued, as Saïed refused to allow the swearing-in of the new government.

Saïed claims to be strengthening his hold on power so as to break the country’s political impasse

This deadlock has exacerbated popular anger at a series of pre-existing and more recent problems, which gave Saïed a pretext for his 25 July announcement. These include the public’s ever-increasing loss of confidence in legislators and political parties; rising living costs; the socio-economic consequences of repeated border closures with Algeria and Libya; a series of lockdowns and curfews aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19, which have failed to reduce the number of new cases and deaths; and a general sense that institutions are dysfunctional. Saïed claims to be strengthening his hold on power so as to break the country’s political impasse, and to be addressing the socio-economic crisis. But the cost may be very high – potentially even the end of Tunisia’s post-2011 experiment with parliamentary democracy.

It is not impossible that Saïed succeeds in establishing a new status quo. In what undoubtedly will be a stiff battle of messaging at home and abroad, Ennahda and its parliamentary allies will hold up the banner for parliamentary politics and democratic process, while Saïed will stress his promises to end corruption and make the state strong and effective. His enduring popularity among some parts of Tunisian society suggests that at least some citizens want power in the hands of a strongman who they believe can make the state work better. By supporting an anti-corruption campaign against officials and businessmen tied to Ennahda, for example, he could permanently weaken some of his strongest political rivals.

Still, there are plenty of other scenarios that are at least as plausible, given the potential opposition to Saïed. It remains unclear whether the public administration, business circles, professionals, political parties and civil society groups will collaborate with or resist the president’s next moves. A second important factor will be the profiles of the people he chooses to advise him and to fill the state’s key positions, as they will help define his policy priorities and their execution. Third will be the reaction of international financial institutions, rating agencies and creditors, which could widen or narrow Saïed’s room for economic manoeuvre.

The economy is in dire shape, with a contraction of 8.8 per cent and a fiscal deficit of 11.4 per cent of GDP. The pandemic has exacerbated these problems, with hundreds of deaths per day and severe restrictions on movement. The country desperately needs international loans to balance its budget, and it is not clear where the money will come from. Saïed will inevitably be forced to adopt austerity measures, which will likely prove unpopular. This reinforces the likelihood that the 25 July events signal a turn toward more authoritarian rule.

What are the regional dimensions of the crisis?

Tunisia is a small country of 11 million people, much weakened by economic disruptions since the Arab uprisings, the latest political stalemate, mismanagement of the COVID-19 response and the decline of tourism. It is thus unusually dependent on the policies and support of its larger, often richer North African neighbours – notably Algeria, Egypt and Libya – as well as the Gulf Arab states and the former colonial power France just across the Mediterranean. All these countries pursue their own agendas vis-à-vis Tunisia.

Many in Tunisia accuse outsiders of having a hand in recent events. Ennahda officials, for example, tend to blame the first wave of anti-Ennahda demonstrations on 25 July on the United Arab Emirates (UAE), noting that the Emirati satellite television network Al Arabiyya broadcast images of demonstrators live and at length, making it look like there were large masses blaming the party for a decade of mismanagement and assassinations of secularist and leftist politicians. Meanwhile, the widely watched Al Jazeera network called upon Tunisians to rally to the defence of “revolution and democracy”. Al Jazeera is based in Qatar, a Gulf Arab rival to the UAE that has long supported the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that inspired Ennahda’s founders. Shortly after Al Jazeera broadcast its call, police stormed its offices in Tunis and closed them down. Some Tunisians also noted that in April, Saïed visited Egypt, where he voiced support for the policies of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who crushed the Muslim Brotherhood after taking power in 2013 and is often seen as part of a regional anti-Islamist axis and close to the UAE. For them, Egypt is a clear supporter of Saïed’s move.

The current crisis owes more to deteriorating living conditions and political deadlock than to the role of outside players

In reality, though, domestic factors offer a better explanation for the recent developments than regional politics. While in the past external actors have interfered with and aggravated pre-existing tensions, the current crisis owes more to deteriorating living conditions and political deadlock than to the role of outside players.

Is there anything the world can do to promote a peaceful resolution of the situation in Tunisia?

Everything is in flux. Tunisia’s main social and economic actors, including lawyers’, judges’ and journalists’ professional associations, are calling for respect of the constitution’s fundamental tenets. The General Union of Tunisian Workers (known by its French acronym, UGTT), the powerful and broadly representative federation of trade unions, has demanded that the president specify the goals and duration of the exceptional measures.

Most countries are aware of the nuances of Tunisia’s predicament and are unwilling to rush in to act or even comment. While Turkish officials have condemned the president’s move, others, including France, the European Union (EU), the African Union and the U.S. – all of which are influential in Tunisia – have avoided taking a clear stance on these events, instead preferring to encourage all parties to stick to the constitution, without passing judgment on whether Saïed’s power grab was constitutional, and avoid violence.  

Outside powers should put as much pressure as possible on those interlocutors who listen to them to avoid polarising things further and risking violence. In particular, France, the U.S., the EU and Germany should take a tougher line, even if behind the scenes. They should push the president to publicly commit to a roadmap detailing what he intends to do during this period and to re-establishing normal democratic processes, including parliament’s constitutionally defined role, no later than October, when parliament returns from recess. The U.S. and EU have already made statements to this effect. They should urge him to regularly consult the country’s main political, social and economic groups, including opening talks with his rivals, during this emergency period and to operate within the constitution’s limits. They should send clear signals that crackdowns against opponents or the misuse of corruption trials would run against serious foreign opposition.

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