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The Tunisian Exception: Success and Limits of Consensus
The Tunisian Exception: Success and Limits of Consensus
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Seven Ways to Steady a Tunisia under New Attack
Seven Ways to Steady a Tunisia under New Attack

The Tunisian Exception: Success and Limits of Consensus

To prevent a rerun of last year’s political crisis, Tunisia needs far-sighted political precautions that can preserve the national compromise beyond the 2014 elections.

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I. Overview

From July to December 2013, Tunisia experienced a political crisis that had two possible outcomes: violence or consensus. The January 2014 adoption of a new constitution confirmed that compromise had prevailed. With the nomination of an independent technocratic government to replace the An-Nahda-led Troika, the country’s transition entered a new phase – less troubled than the preceding one but with an outcome just as uncertain. The challenge is to prolong the consensus that emerged from the national dialogue and prevent the return of political polarisation, even through potentially divisive elections. Rather than focusing only on power-sharing – which will work only in the event of reasonable balance between Islamists and secularists at the ballot box – stakeholders should prepare too for other results, particularly by limiting the power of electoral winners and offering assurances to losers.

The legislative and presidential elections scheduled to take place by the end of 2014 under the transitional provisions of the new constitution could cause new spoilers to emerge and produce a majority sufficient for either Islamists or secularists to form a coalition that excludes the other. With such high stakes, losers may be tempted question the vote’s credibility and resuscitate the polarisation of last year, despite the consensual and democratic character of the new constitution.

The leaders of the major parties, for the time being, are seeking to reduce the uncertainty of the next elections by agreeing to share power. But much of their rank-and-file hopes to win outright. Many Islamists believe they will return to power at the head of a new governmental coalition; some secular fringes count on the government of Prime Minister Mehdi Jom’a to “de-Islamise” the civil service before the elections occur, at least sufficiently for them to deem the elections fair.

The political scene is shifting fast. The alliance contemplated by the two largest political forces – An-Nahda and the secular party Nida Tounes – could marginalise a number of smaller parties and political personalities. The scenario of a wider parliamentary coalition, integrating all the most important political forces, assumes an electoral equilibrium between Islamists and secularists that remains hypothetical.

Several obstacles could prevent the projected coalitions forming or results that are balanced. These include the readoption of the 2011 electoral law, which in the case of the 2011 elections encouraged the proliferation of electoral lists and benefited a more united Islamist camp; and the fragile economic, social and security context. Growing public disillusionment and low voter turnout, together with the diminishing influence of political parties and the trade union, make results even less predictable.

Tunisia’s major political forces would benefit from preserving the spirit of compromise that helped resolve its last crisis, even in the midst of their campaigns. Beyond electoral transparency, they should reach an accord, in advance of the vote, on minimum guarantees against the next government adopting a “winner-takes-all” approach and agree beforehand to its main objectives, notably with regard to economic and security policy. Deliberating on the basic rules of governance, regardless of the outcome of the upcoming vote, would reassure all sides and anchor political stability in a broader process of democratisation, rather than a narrow power-sharing deal.

Tunis/Brussels, 5 June 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.