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Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet Set a Powerful Example
Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet Set a Powerful Example
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
(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.

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.