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Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet Set a Powerful Example
Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet Set a Powerful Example
Tunisia in 2019: a Pivotal Year?
Tunisia in 2019: a Pivotal Year?
(LtoR) Secretary General of the Tunisian General Labour Union Houcine Abbassi, President of the Tunisian Employers Union Wided Bouchamaoui, President of the Tunisian Human Rights League, Abdessattar ben Moussa and Tunisian lawyer Fadhel Mahfoudh. AFP/Fethi Belaid

Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet Set a Powerful Example

The Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to award its annual peace prize to Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet is an occasion to celebrate what this extraordinary group of labour unions, business and civil society organisations accomplished. Today, it is easy to be complacent about the coalition government in Tunis, which is a direct result of the groundwork laid by the Quartet in 2013. One can lament the security, economic and political challenges that Tunisia still faces. However, the situation could have been far worse were it not for the role played by the Quartet.

Over the tumultuous summer of 2013, things were not looking good in Tunisia. The coalition “Troika” government – led by the Nahda, Ettakatol and Congress for the Republic (CPR) parties, formed after the 2011 elections – was fast losing popular support. The opposition, led by secular parties and elements of the former regime, derided the Troika government for being both ineffectual and ill-intentioned. Its members accused the government of harbouring an Islamist agenda and being excessively tolerant of radical groups, notably Ansar Sharia, believed to be behind the assassinations of leftist politicians Choukri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi in February and July 2013. (The Troika government declared Ansar Sharia a terrorist group in August 2013.) The regional tide was also changing: the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt after mass protests, on 3 July 2013, provided a model that some in the opposition wanted to emulate. Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were pushing a “counter-revolutionary” agenda, hoping to stem the advance of Muslim Brotherhood-inspired groups across the region. The political atmosphere was highly polarised and toxic; the possibility of a violent confrontation all too real.

It was in this context that the National Dialogue Quartet was formed. It began as an initiative by the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT, Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail). As far back as 18 June 2012 (a year before the crisis), the national trade union federation had called for a national dialogue to defuse political tensions. On 30 July 2013, the UGTT reiterated its call, proposing that the Troika government be replaced by a caretaker government and that an agenda be set to finalise a new constitution. The federation was soon joined by three other civil society groups: the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA, Union tunisienne de l’industrie, du commerce et de l’artisanat), the Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH, la Ligue tunisienne pour la défense des droits de l’homme), and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers (Ordre national des avocats de Tunisie). This Quartet formed the backbone of the National Dialogue, which was eventually joined by 21 political parties. The Dialogue, held between August 2013 and January 2014, consisted of talks with these various parties that were overseen by the Quartet. (Crisis Group will honour two key participants in the National Dialogue, President Béji Caïd Essebsi and Nahda party leader Rached Ghannouchi, at its 20th Anniversary Award Dinner in New York on 26 October.)

There are several reasons the National Dialogue succeeded, including strong popular and international pressure to avoid the Egyptian scenario. A key factor was that the Quartet had real support in Tunisian society. The UGTT, despite years of dictatorship, had managed to build a national network of over 400,000 members and today has the ability to call for massive general strikes that can paralyse the economy. While the UGTT represents labour, the UTICA represents capital, the influential and moneyed business elite. The human rights league and the lawyers’ syndicate are veterans of the opposition to the Ben Ali regime and played an important role in the 2011 revolution. Together, these four organisations had both moral clout and political brawn; they could mobilise public opinion and steer the national debate. The UGTT and UTICA, precisely because they are often at loggerheads on labour issues, made for a particularly compelling duo in jointly pushing an agenda of compromise.

Initially, the Quartet’s proposal was seen as part of the opposition’s strategy, because of its call for the dismissal of the Nahda-led government. However, the Quartet’s leadership in effect provided a vehicle for negotiation, neutralising the opposition’s hardliners who might have backed more radical options, such as an outright coup. From the start of the National Dialogue in August 2013 through January 2014, when the caretaker government took office, the Quartet channelled political energies towards a compromise. It often did so directly, leading the discussions between political parties. As one participant in the talks told us, UGTT Secretary-General Hocine Abassi “decided who spoke and imposed decisions…. He sometimes made participants from political parties remain in the room after the end of our sessions if no decision had been reached.”

Tunisia was fortunate to have civil-society leaders who recognised the gravity of the moment, and who were able to defuse the situation and avert radical scenarios. In a region where civil-society groups often face repression and are marginalised, the Tunisian example shows the value of having actors from outside formal politics play a role in moments of crisis. No one elected the National Dialogue Quartet, but they nonetheless represented something real: the desire of many Tunisians to resolve their differences in a peaceful and constructive way. At a time when NGOs are being shut down in Egypt and civil-society activists are threatened and even assassinated in Libya, there is a valuable lesson to be learned from this year’s Nobel Peace Prize-winners.

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.