Safa Mubgar
Last updated: 8 March, 2013

Which way will Tunisia go?

"Such has been al-Nahda’s performance – and that of their secular coalition partners – that the popularity of the secular parties are on a roll."

Tunisia, front of the Arab Spring, Mediterranean tourist resort, and beacon of Arab social democracy is in turmoil. The cause of that turmoil has been ascribed to the recent assassination of Shukri Belaid, a human rights lawyer and secular politician. The then Prime Minister, Hamid Jebali, apparently demanded a technocrat government to lay the political crisis caused by the murder to rest.

Yet the issues long predate Belaid’s murder (there was talk of a reshuffle by early December 2012); indeed the assassination was symptomatic of the issue, not causative. The underlying issue is Tunisia’s direction (Islamist or secular) and the near existential struggle to decide the outcome of that debate.

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On top of this strategic issue lie two tactical misunderstandings, principally by the Islamists, and in particular al-Nahda (also written Ennahda). The first of these misunderstandings – which any Tunisi taxi driver will cheerfully correct – is that the interim administration has a mandate to govern. Tunisians are very clear: the interim government’s purpose is to draft an acceptable Constitution and then to take that to the people for their approval. This was supposed to have been accomplished in one year (2012), but mutual refusal to compromise has led to procedural gridlock.

The second, and related, issue is that al-Nahda believe that they have a mandate to govern – despite the interim nature of the government. This assertion is based on the electoral results in October 2011, in which al-Nahda gained 40% of the votes cast. In fact, the social-democratic parties clearly lost the elections, as elsewhere, by splitting their vote: more than 110 candidates stood in the elections, many of them having very similar platforms and manifestos (by contrast, and like other established Islamist parties, al-Nahda imposed tight party discipline and as a result benefitted from such concentration of effort). Although 127 seats fell to the social democrats, al-Nahda – with 89 seats – was the largest party, and was thus asked to form the government.

Despite these simple facts, al-Nahda has claimed that only 20% of the Tunisian population do not want an Islamist government. The basic mathematics – that al-Nahda polled 40% of the 52% of Tunisians who voted in October 2011 – suggests that the facts are utterly opposite: only 20% actively want an Islamist government (a comfortable majority of Tunisians probably want a Muslim government, but that is rather a different matter).

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Of the 48% who did not vote, some will have been partisans of the RCD, the party of ex-President Ben Ali. While the Islamists cast all who oppose them as ex-RCD, there is probably some truth in their accusations; indeed, some of the violence is doubtless orchestrated by RCD loyalists to discredit and destabilise the government. Other non-voters will have been Salafis – the hard-line, fundamentalist Islamists – who at that stage had a doctrinal issue with elections, although they have since come to terms with the concept; indeed two Salafi parties were licensed in 2012.

A further issue undermining al-Nahda’s cause is that – like all politicians – they have had to compromise and haggle with their coalition partners and opposition to achieve anything in their manifesto. This has alienated their Islamist base (some of whom may make the jump to the Salafi parties) for failing to be Islamically pure, while irritating their Muslim supporters for placing ideology over political pragmatism. For the many who voted for al-Nahda on the basis that the Islamists would keep their pledges and improve the lot of the ordinary Tunisian, they have been sorely – predictably – disappointed, and al-Nahda has lost much of the floating vote on that basis.

Such has been al-Nahda’s performance – and that of their secular coalition partners – that the popularity of the secular parties are on a roll; Nida’ Tunis, led by long-term politician Qa’id Bija al-Sabsi (also written Caid Beja Essabsi), is polling on a par with al-Nahda. Nominally apolitical organisations such as the UGTT (the main trade union) have also weighed in on the staunchly anti-Islamist ticket. Further, the secular parties have analysed their divisive electoral issues and are forming larger coalitions with the explicit intention of beating al-Nahda when the elections come.

Possibly as a result of the increasing pressures on it, al-Nahda has been digging in its doctrinal heels, and refusing to compromise on many issues. Although it is reported that it has agreed to surrender the “sovereign” ministries – there is still gridlock over the constitutional drafting (not helped by the withdrawal in protest by many of the opposition parties).

Political opponents have suggested that al-Nahda have privately done the electoral maths also, and noted that this impasse extends al-Nahda’s duration in power, and its ministers in office. Cynics point out that al-Nahda has taken advantage of this interregnum to pack various ministries with its placemen, possibly with a view to extending its influence beyond any likely electoral defeat.

After 25 years in opposition – exile and prison – it is understandable that al-Nahda feel that they have paid the price for power. After fifty years dominating Tunisia, the secularists also feel that they have a right to rule. Neither is right. Power is within the gift of the Tunisian people; no one has a divine – or socialist – right to govern in Tunisia. It would be well that they remember it: la peuple a perdue sa peur.

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