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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’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

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

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.