19.08.2013 Author: Yuriy Zinin

Tunisia in the Search for Compromise

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The mass demonstrations and rallies in Tunisia involving both supporters and opponents of the Islamic Ennahda party, which has been in power in the country since the end of 2011, have highlighted the growing political polarization in society.

The catalyst for these protests was the murder of a deputy of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA)/Parliament/ of Tunisia and opposition figure, Mohamed Brahmi, at the doorstep of his house on July 25 of this year. Six months earlier, the leader of the Popular Front, Chokri Belaid, was similarly done away with. Both victims were members of the left-wing nationalist section of Tunisian society and were the main mouthpieces of those criticizing the Ennahda party, accusing it of being responsible for the deterioration of the socio-economic situation, security, inexperience in running the country, etc.

These killings in Tunisia, where previously there were no political killings, have caused a significant protest response. In its wake, the opposition demanded the resignation of the cabinet, the creation of a government of national salvation or independent technocrats and the dissolution of the assembly. In solidarity, more than 60 deputies have suspended their work in the temporary parliament.

The government, which is under the control of Ennahda, is maneuvering to stay on the top of the political system. It insists on the adoption of a new constitution (the issue has long been a stumbling block), followed by a December election of a permanent parliament. Ennahda has agreed to temporarily suspend the work of the NCA and for negotiations to form a government of national unity.

Will the involvement of the Arab streets in mass demonstrations lead to an exacerbation of the crisis in Tunisia, or will the country that produced one of the mildest versions of the Arab Spring revolutions find a liberal solution to its problems?

It is worth noting that the confrontation between the two movements – pro-Islamist and pro-secular – did not simply arise today. It has its roots in the colonial era and continued after independence. The Jasmine Revolution in January 2011 and the overthrow of Ben Ali’s government added a new dimension to this phenomenon, paving the way for the re-formation of the elite and gave new factions access to the “wheels of power”. Forces differing as to their viewpoints and approaches were merged into the general mainstream by the spontaneous popular protest movement with the motive to overthrow the common enemy, the head of an authoritarian regime.

After the overthrow the loose alliance fell apart, the general election reinforced this fragmentation and the increased disunity, which continued to grow, provoked mutual intransigence. The bloc consisting of the opponents of the Islamists in Tunisia is heterogeneous and consists of a left-wing, liberals, democrats, progressives and secular forces. It includes those parties which are very modestly represented in the parliament, or did not make it into parliament or were formed following the elections.

The opposition has no charismatic personalities and often has rivalries between the ambitions of individual leaders of political parties. Today, many in this camp believe that the retreat of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab region is clearly illustrated by the rise to power of the military in Egypt, the failures of an armed Islamist uprising in Syria, the chaos in neighboring Libya. They believe that against this background, Ennahda is playing its “last card”.

But in this ideological competition political Islam remains a powerful force. In general, it is better organized and able to feel the pulse of and respond to the vulnerable masses. The Islamists are in a mosaic society where there remains the significant influence of archaic social relations and lifestyles as well as hallowed conservative traditions. In future electoral battles, Islamists have a chance to dominate due to the fact that women, who represent half of the population, vote largely under the instruction of their husbands, relatives and local mullahs.

Nonetheless, the ranks of political Islam are also not monolithic. Moderate Islamists, appealing to civil society and democratic principles, suffer attacks from supporters of extreme views: Salafis and jihadists.

Today, the government, led by Ennahda, has been fighting against armed militants hiding among Islamist rebels fleeing from Mali in the Sha’anbi mountains on the border with Algeria.

The opposition of Islamist forces and their opponents, according to several bloggers, risk degrading the country and causing the most destructive impact on the state of Tunisia. It is not enough to be an enemy of the Islamists, wrote one of the local authors, to pass for a “real Democrat”. As it is not enough to be an Islamist to be a “good Muslim”. We are talking about the fate of the country, where political instability is challenging economic situation, the investment climate and the development of the tourism segment – the major source of foreign currency earnings, etc.

Thus, according to the Central Bank, the first half of this year has shown a fall in the rate of production and a rate of inflation that is not declining, etc. An economic recovery is possible, according to experts, if policies focus on dialog and consensus.

In this regard, attention should be drawn to the recent initiative of the Tunisian General Labor Union to resolve the current political impasse. It has called on all political parties to rise above their “narrow rationales and put above all else the interests of the country, which is going through a stage of development fraught with the risk of terrorism.” The leadership of the union, which has half a million members and is a powerful force in the country, has begun negotiations with the country’s various political parties and organizations. After all, if under the present circumstances a means of compromise between the majority and the minority in parliament is not found, then even after the election, future rivalries between them could reoccur in a similar fashion as today. 

Yury Zinin, a senior researcher at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, exclusively for the  online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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