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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
Tunisia in 2019: a Pivotal Year?
Tunisia in 2019: a Pivotal Year?

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

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.