Tunisia, which gained its independence from France in 1956, had under the leadership of first President Habib Bourguiba become for the West the symbol of enlightened Arab democracy. It was hoped that other Arab states would follow suit. It did not happen. In 2011, a popular uprising led to the downfall of President Zin El Abidine Ben Ali and unleashed the so-called Arab Spring which was expected to transform the Middle East, free the people from dictators and promote democracy and economic development.
These hopes were swiftly dashed when Muslim Brothers were elected and took over from ousted leaders. They were themselves ousted fairly quickly but countries were left in turmoil, which turned into civil wars ongoing to this day in Libya, Syria and Yemen and terror attacks from Islamic organizations in Egypt. Tunisia, having managed to escape both fates so far, was praised again and in the course of the following seven years, Western countries poured no less than 10 billion dollars in the country’s coffers.
Unfortunately, a succession of seven governments during the same period did not cure the ailing economy. Popular unrest due to dire economic conditions led in the past year to an acute political crisis endangering the regime. The ruling Nidaa Tounes – “Call for Tunisia” – party is demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed because of his dismal economic record. A move opposed by rival Al Nahda party, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, on the ground that it would further endanger stability.
Parliamentary and presidential elections are due to be held in November 2019 and tempers are running high with political forces jockeying for position. There are renewed calls to investigate claims against Al Nahda, implicated in the murder of two opponents allegedly killed by members of the secret branch set up by its leadership when it was in power in 2013. Then there is the growing threat of radical Islamic organizations.
Elected in 2011, Nahda had formed a government which favored radical Islam and nearly drew the country into a civil war in 2013 after the murder of the two opponents. Tunisia teetered on the brink, but the following year Nahda relinquished power – not for the good of the country, it was said, but to avoid a fate similar to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt which had been forcibly ousted by a popular uprising supported by the army.
It was a secular party, Nidaa Tounes, which won the 2014 elections with Nahda a close second. Together they set up a coalition which adopted a new and fairly liberal constitution; for the first time in an Arab country it does not state that the Sharia is the main source of legislation. The coalition failed to redress the economic situation and corruption again became rampant. In 2016, a government of national unity comprised of six parties was formed with Nidaa member Chahed at its helm.
Only 41 at the time, Chahed was already a seasoned politician who had held ministerial posts. He established a committee to tackle corruption, provoking the ire of leaders of his own party embroiled in unsavory affairs – as well as of some Nahda leaders for similar reasons. He also came to an agreement with the International Monetary Fund, receiving an impressive 2.93 billion dollars loan against a number of steps such as reforming the public sector, canceling subventions and devaluating the Tunisian dinar. The ensuing price rise caused unrest with UGTT, the powerful trade union, protesting against austerity measures.
MANIFESTATIONS FOLLOWED the implementation of those measures last January; public institutions were burned. In the ensuing chaos, there was an attempt to set fire to a Jewish school in Djerba. A man was killed, and dozens of policemen were wounded. Though repression was swift and violent, protests continued throughout the year, disturbing the fabric of society. Institutions of higher learning and universities were closed for six months; hundreds of citizens summarily arrested. UGTT led several strikes; the latest, on November 23, brought the civil service to a standstill. The UN OHCHR admonished the government, reminding it that citizens had the right to demonstrate and express their views freely.
Chahed was undeterred and doggedly pursued his twin goals of implementing far reaching reforms and fighting corruption, at the cost of growing opposition inside his own party and great popular unrest. In May one of the richest men in the country was arrested for corruption. He is a personal friend of President Beji Caid al Sebsi, whose son Hafez, Nidaa Tounes’s leader, called for the resignation of the party’s prime minister. UGTT seconded the call, but to everyone’s surprise Nahda opposed the move. The plurality needed for a vote of no confidence in the parliament could not be obtained and Chahed remained at the helm.
The ongoing fight between the prime minister and his party leader is not abating. In July, Nidaa Tounes suspended Chahed from its ranks and the president himself asked him to resign or to submit to a vote of confidence. He did neither. In September, Beji Caid al Sebsi dissolved the partnership with Nahda. The embattled prime minister can still muster enough votes to prevent the fall of his government because in a somewhat bizarre twist Nahda members of parliament still support him, while the party which put him in power is divided, some of its representatives siding with him against their own leaders. His task is not an easy one and he struggles to pass new legislation and implement reforms demanded by the IMF. Nevertheless, he remains convinced that the economy will improve, and the effects of the reforms will be felt in 2019 or 2020 at the latest; estimated growth for 2018 is 2.4%. Inflation remains high at 8%, worse, unemployment is at 15%, a figure which goes up to 30% for young people.
Political unrest is expected to worsen towards the November 2019 elections. Nidaa Tounes militants say that if the economy improves Chahed intends to run for the presidency, challenging the Sebsi father or son expected to be chosen as the party candidate. Nahda, building on its “moderate” attitude during the current legislature and buoyed by the infighting of its rival hopes to win the elections. During its 2016 national congress, its leader Rashed Ghannouchi announced that the party would divorce itself from political Islam and that religion would no longer be part of its considerations. He even chose a Jewish candidate to run in last March’s municipal elections. But Nahda still opposes the liberal legislation promoted by Chahed, such as laws given women equal inheritance rights, on the ground that it is against the Sharia. Approved in November by the cabinet, it is yet to be debated in the parliament.
ISLAMIC TERROR still looms large in the country’s preoccupations. On October 30, a female suicide bomber detonated her explosives on Bourguiba Avenue in the capital Tunis, wounding eight policemen and a civilian. Jihadi organizations such as al-Qaeda and Daesh still target “liberal” Tunisia. The year 2015 saw a string of terror attacks in the capital, culminating in the Sousse attack at a popular tourist resort, leaving 38 dead and 39 wounded, most of them foreign nationals. There are sporadic incidents with Daesh at the borders with Libya and Algeria. Incidentally, some 3,000 Tunisians joined the Islamic State, the highest number of all Arab states.
The renewed investigation into the 2013 murder of Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahimi, with new material presented to Tunisian military court, could have far reaching consequences. Should Nahda be indicted on the basis of the involvement of its secret branch in the crime, government and parliament may have to decide to forbid its activities and even to order its dissolution. A move which would lead the party to mobilize its militants with a very real risk of civil war.
Because of the political and security situation, the president extended by an extra month the state of emergency imposed after the 2015 attacks which was to expire on December 5, and which enables the government to impose curfews, forbid strikes and demonstrations, etc.
What next? Will long suffering Tunisian citizens wait patiently for the promised improvement in their living conditions? It appears doubtful. Will Chahed be able to hold on in spite of the pressure exerted by his own party? Should his government fall with no alternative in sight, how would the country be ruled? Will elections be held on time? No less important, will Nahda be impeached and civil war ensue? Western capitals are watching the country which was for so long the focus of admiration and hope; so do Arab states, knowing only too well that events in Tunisia could plunge the Middle East into renewed turmoil.The writer is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.
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