Tunisia: Experts Weekly - What Next for Tunisia?

Former Tunisian Prime Minister, Hamadi Jebali.
15 February 2013

Triggered by the assassination of opposition figure Chokri Belaid last week, Tunisian politics has been unravelling. Protesters took to the streets, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali proposed the dissolution of the government, Jebali's own party al-Nahda rejected his calls, President Moncef Marzouki's party withdrew from government before reversing its decision, and there was a general strike. Think Africa Press asked a panel of experts: "Where does this leave the Tunisian revolution?"

Yasmine Ryan, North Africa journalist for Aljazeera:

These latest events have once again shown that the Tunisian revolution is far from over, and will not be for years to come.

The inexperience of the members of the coalition government has placed considerable strain on the country as a whole. The economic and political costs of their errors have pushed ordinary Tunisians - marginalised for decades under the old regime - to continue to demand the change they so desperately want.

It has been leftist leaders and lawyers like Chokri Belaid, along with journalists, unionists and unemployed youths, who have been at the forefront of the latest social unrest. Al-Nahda has in turn vented its anger at these activists, demonising them and going into crisis mode in response to their criticism.

Whether or not al-Nahda was directly involved in Belaid's assassination, the party has been widely condemned for encouraging a climate of tolerance towards political violence.

Another major criticism from the movement's many opponents is that the party's representatives in the constituent assembly and the government follow the orders of the group's leader, Rachid Ghannouchi.

Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali's defiance of Ghannouchi, and the party, demonstrated the extent to which that the party's internal dynamics are being tested by the experience of governance.

How the al-Nahda movement manages the coming months as the country prepares for elections, and whether it can take some of the criticisms made by figures such as Belaid, will be the ultimate test of what the movement really means.

Mohamed-Salah Omri, Lecturer in Modern Arabic Language and Literature at the University of Oxford:

Chokri Belaid's assassination and subsequent funeral have caused a radical rethink of where Tunisia stands today. The funeral itself, in its unprecedented size and highly mediatised character, brought into public view the sea change which has been taking place. Indeed, the ruling party, al-Nahda, which was so popular around the October 2011 elections, emerged as the main target of public disappointment. Neither it nor the government dared attend the funeral.

On the same day, the coalition government became virtually obsolete when its leader, Prime Minister Jebali, called for its replacement by a government of independent technocrats who would pledge not to run for the next elections.

To add more uncertainty to this situation, al-Nahda rejected the proposal, made by its very own General Secretary. This could have been for a number of reasons: because the party would lose control of state institutions and the power to make key appointments; because al-Nahda feared that on an even-playing political field it would lose support to an increasingly united opposition; or because the party does not want to risk its main asset, namely its unity.

Outside al-Nahda, Jebali's move has puzzled many. Some argue that it would actually help al-Nahda since it could help shed off the failures of the government. Others see it as a way of appeasing public anger temporarily.

The opposition, who have long campaigned for disassociating the state apparatus from al-Nahda, finds itself in a dilemma. Some parties - Nida Tounes and its allies in particular - have welcomed the move with certain conditions in the hope it can seize the change in public opinion and isolate al-Nahda.

At the popular level, the initiative has considerable support. There is a widespread feeling of exhaustion, which makes Jebali's initiative welcome. Many also hope a technocratic government could redress the politicisation of the security forces that has occurred over the past year or so. The economy is not likely to be affected in major ways but a period of calm could improve productivity and energise tourism.

To add more to this deterioration of trust, the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), elected to write a new constitution, is now in an awkward position. This task has moved too slowly and chaotically to assure people the transitional phase will end soon or in meaningful outcomes. In addition, due to a fairly large number of party defections, the NCA no longer reflects the outcome of the last elections putting its legitimacy into question.

The reaction to Belaid's assassination has proven that Tunisia's revolutionary drive is still alive. But this time it has a different target, namely the government and radical Islamists. The media seems to have gained independence, making it a powerful asset to the opposition. But the unity and harmony which characterised Tunisia immediately after Ben Ali's departure have all but vanished.

While the Tunisian revolution has had a form of rebirth, uncertainty is at its highest as well. The fate of Jebali's initiative could determine the next phase of the revolution. If it succeeds and incorporates suggestions by the opposition, it can contribute to a more evenly fought contest, managed by a neutral state. If it fails, al-Nahda is likely to form a new coalition, which would sharpen polarisation and instigate further unrest by an opposition who now has the advantage. In the latter case, a second revolution is not out of the question.

Raoudha Ben Othman, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Tunis:

The Tunisians who rushed to the clinic where Chokri Belaid was taken when he was shot, who escorted his corpse to the Hospital, and who insisted on paying him tribute during his funeral were driven by one main message: "No to violence, no to assassinations". Many of these Tunisians probably knew Belaid from his media appearances, many were perhaps not even sure of the exact name of his party, and many did not necessarily agree with his positions - but all intuitively felt that his assassination marked a dangerous turning point in the democratic transition.

Troika ministers and party officials were publicly banned from attending the funeral by the Belaid family and a few came in for criticism when they tried to show their sympathy at the tragic loss of a national political figure. Accusations that al Nahda party, and specially Ghannouchi, were complicit in the assassination were publicly made in the street demonstrations, during the funeral and in the media.

Once again, many Tunisians showed their refusal to be ruled by the Islamists. On the same day Belaid was assassinated, PM Jebali made a number of propositions, which he qualified as the only way out of the political crisis. He announced he would form a new government composed of non-partisan ministers who would not run in the upcoming elections, a new limited time schedule for the constituent assembly finish writing the constitution and a preliminary agreement on the elections date.

PM Jebali surprised many politicians and citizens, who viewed his propositions as very brave due to his position as the General-Secretary of the al Nahda party. Everyday more and more parties support him. However, the biggest obstacle remains convincing al Nahda - who have officially declared that they support PM Jebali but not a non-partisan government. Most Tunisians interpret this as a struggle between Jebali and Ghannouchi, and impatiently wait to see the eventual victor.

Those who defend a non-partisan government, such as Mustapha Ben Jaafar, the president of the Constituent Assembly and leader of Ettakattol (one of the troika-ruling parties alongside al-Nahda and the CPR), worry that Tunisia can easily fall into chaos. The ruling parties have been unable to agree on a new government, particularly who should be head of the interior, foreign affairs and the justice ministries. Al Nahda has been accused of being intransigent, arguing that the Tunisians have voted them to rule, not to hand over sensitive ministries to "technocrats". The other two parties in the Troika have argued that a non-partisan minister at the head of these three ministries would guarantee a minimum standard of objectivity and restore public faith - something necessary to stabilise recent protests.

Those against Jebali's proposition do so on a number of different grounds. Some see it as an admission of failure by the Troika, and the only way out is to organise a national rescue conference and decide on a future road map and government which will most probably not include al Nahda or any other Islamist party. Former PM Caid Sebsi, president of Nidaa Tounes, a new party formed in June 2012 allegedly composed of former RCD figures has asked to dissolve the constituent assembly, which he has branded "incompetent" after it has been unable to draft a constitution during the time frame agreed to before the October 23, 2011 election.

The assassination of Chokri Belaid has definitely marked a turning point in the history of the democratic transition in Tunisia. All Tunisians are united against political violence, the number one threat to any fair, transparent election. Most observers can deem al Nahda the biggest loser of this assassination, as it presented all its opponents the opportunity to express their hatred, mistrust and refusal of a party that mixes Islam with politics. But some wrongly assume that Belaid's assassination will mark the end of al Nadha. Whether al Nahda learn from this is the real question.

Rom Bhandari is Legal Editor at Think Africa Press. He holds an LLM from King's College, University of London. His interests include human rights and migration.

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