The Middle East Channel

Tunisia's Transition Continues

Tunisia's transition is finally back on track. After months of political brinkmanship, back room negotiations, and broken deadlines for reaching a deal, the country has a new prime minister and -- better yet -- a transitional justice law that begins to address deeper issues of long-term reform and reconciliation. The Arab Spring -- or, at the very least, the Tunisian Spring -- isn't dead yet.

The assassination of pan-Arabist politician Mohamed Brahmi in late July -- Tunisia's second political assassination in just six months -- ground the transition to a standstill. Steps to finalize the country's constitution and name an election oversight committee stalled as opposition politicians, inspired by Egypt's Tamarod movement and possibly looking to foment a kind of soft coup in Tunisia, called for complete dissolution of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), Tunisia's core transitional body. 

Dozens of opposition representatives -- some of whom rarely attended NCA sessions to begin with -- abandoned their posts and joined the protests at Bardo, a Tunis neighborhood just outside the NCA building. During August, thousands of protesters gathered at Bardo to demand dissolution of the NCA and resignation of Tunisia's coalition government.

Many Tunisians were understandably upset at the assembly's record of broken promises and poor public communication. Though nearly all parties elected to the NCA had signed a September 2011 pact pledging to finish the constitution in just one year -- a deadline constitutional experts called highly unrealistic -- the drafting process ended up dragging on more than two years. More importantly, the NCA failed to craft a robust public outreach campaign that could have justified the necessity of extending deadlines to produce a higher-quality, more democratically inclusive constitution. By July and August 2011, large numbers of Tunisians were fed up with the NCA, wondering if abstract political debates in the capital would ever affect their own lives. Many described NCA members as overpaid, ineffectual fat cats unconcerned about their material realities. Inflation was rising, the security situation appeared to be breaking down, and some Tunisians began growing nostalgic for the predictable stability of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's police state. "We don't deserve democracy," a neighbor of mine in Tunis told me. "It's just a lot of talk and no results."

Despite the dissatisfaction, dissolving the NCA was a dangerous proposal. Key opposition politicians, including Beji Caid Essebsi, who spearheaded the formation of Nidaa Tounes, the most popular opposition party, in early 2012, had trouble explaining how a government of unelected, appointed "technocrats" designed to replace the NCA could ever achieve democratic legitimacy. Essebsi and other top figures in Nidaa Tounes, many of whom served in the administrations of Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali (Tunisia's two prerevolutionary presidents) continually invoked an alternative concept -- "consensual legitimacy." This idea was rooted in popular dissatisfaction with the sitting government rather than in electoral mechanisms, which they described in off-the-record conversations as overly fetishized by Tunisia's ruling Islamist party, Ennahda, and by Western governments.

A battle of protests ensued throughout August and into early September, as both sides -- one led by Ennahda, the other by Nidaa Tounes -- attempted to resolve the legitimacy debate on the streets of downtown Tunis. In the absence of overwhelming numbers on either side, however, and without a strong-fisted army to oust the government, as happened in Egypt, Tunisian politicians were, once again, forced to sit around the negotiating table.

This time, though, there wasn't as much for the government to give away. In February, following the assassination of Belaid, then Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali -- a member of Ennahda -- made the bold decision to diffuse tensions by reshuffling the government to include "technocrats," skilled bureaucrats without clear ties to any party, in a number of key ministerial posts. Because it had already given a large number of national administrative posts away, Ennahda had fewer bargaining chips after the Brahmi assassination. The party was unwilling to dissolve the NCA, viewing destruction of Tunisia's only democratically elected institution as revolutionary suicide. It seemed the only alternative was splitting the difference -- preserving the NCA and allowing it to finish the constitution, on the one hand, while at the same time obliging the coalition to cede control of the other half of the government, creating a fully "technocratic" administration. Iyadh Ben Achour, a prominent Tunisian jurist, proposed this solution in late July, and it caught on as both sides realized the street battle wouldn't be sufficient to settle scores.

So in September a National Dialogue process was set up, with four unlikely mediators -- including the Tunisian trade union and the Tunisian League of Human Rights -- attempting to facilitate dialogue between opposition and sitting government politicians. The participants in the dialogue agreed to implement a roadmap out of the crisis. Step one was deciding on a new prime minister, after which a new, fully technocratic government would be appointed, the constitution would be finalized, and new elections would be held.

Getting past step one, though, proved difficult. Ennahda feared that exiting government entirely without first securing a finished constitution and a rock-solid election committee would be dangerous -- not only for the Tunisian transition as a whole (which it feared could backslide into authoritarianism if self-appointed "technocrats" decided to dispense with electoral legitimacy altogether), but for themselves personally. Thousands of Ennahda members and their families were unjustly arrested, imprisoned, and tortured under Ben Ali's regime. Without firm guarantees -- a constitution in place, new elections on the horizon, and a transitional justice law on the books -- Ennahda supporters feared an Egypt scenario could happen in Tunisia, with old regime figures booting out democratically elected representatives and resurrecting a fresh campaign of political persecution in the country.

Tensions within Ennahda reached a boiling point this autumn, as party activists throughout Tunisia protested the leadership's compromising stance. Talk circulated in Ennahda's governing shura council of even voting in a new president to replace long-standing party leader Rached Ghannouchi at next year's party conference. Unlike the majority of Ennahda activists and local supporters, who are emotionally, sometimes single-mindedly invested in preserving what they see as the gains of the revolution, the top tier of Ennahda's national leadership tends to be more pragmatic and strategically detached. Sharing bonds that developed over decades of oppression, many of these individuals are committed to playing the long game. They have learned not to push too hard too fast, accumulating lessons from the crackdown on Islamists in Algeria during the 1990s, Tunisia during the 1990s and 2000s, and most recently from the coup in Egypt -- a regional experience that deeply frightened Ennahda, making the bulk of its members less likely to compromise while making a number of key figures at the top more conciliatory.

Opposition figures, however, didn't seem to understand Ennahda's concerns about needing guarantees in order to exit, and bluntly reiterated their demands that the party leave power immediately. "They became illegitimate on October 24, 2012" -- one year and a day after the NCA had been elected, ostensibly to draft a new constitution -- and Essebsi was fond of saying, "They need to go."

For three months, debate in the National Dialogue stalled over who would become the new prime minister. Finding a candidate appealing to all sides - favorable enough to Nidaa Tounes, but distanced enough from the old regime legacies for Ennahda and its revolutionary coalition partner, Congress for the Republic (CPR), to feel safe -- proved challenging. By early November, consensus seemed to be coalescing around Ahmed Mestiri, an 88-year-old who held a number of ministerial posts under Bourguiba and who had broken off from Bourguiba's single party system in 1978 to co-found the Social Democratic Movement (MDS) Party. A history of poor personal relations between Mestiri and Essebsi, however, led Nidaa Tounes to ultimately reject his candidacy, and dialogue appeared to be back at square zero.

A number of potential candidates' names were considered in the weeks that followed. The December 15 announcement that Mahdi Jomaa, a 52-year-old former engineer who became minister of industry in the technocratic government reshuffle earlier this year, would be the next prime minister caught Tunisian media off guard. As of yesterday morning, Leader.tn, a popular news website, still featured articles on three different prime ministerial candidates, including Mustapha Filali, a 92-year-old rumored to have turned down an offer for the post yesterday.

This scrambled coverage points to important flaws of the National Dialogue process -- flaws that, rather ironically, also plagued the NCA's constitutional drafting work. Like the NCA, the dialogue failed to adopt a robust public outreach plan. Communication with average Tunisians about what was actually happening inside the dialogue, its procedures, and the motivations behind its decisions was almost non-existent. Tunisian citizens, along with local journalists and NGOs trying to follow the negotiations, often found themselves confounded about what was happening behind closed doors. Foreign journalists, as indicated by the almost complete absence of coverage on Tunisia over the past few months, largely gave up trying to cover the dialogue, or found editors back home uninterested in detailed reports on Tunisian political wrangling -- however important that political wrangling was for Tunisia's future. I often confided in fellow Tunisia-watchers that, even as a person living here and speaking almost daily with parties involved in the negotiations, I often felt ignorantly mute -- like a sportscaster stranded outside the stadium.

Like the NCA, the National Dialogue repeatedly failed to honor self-imposed deadlines, operating on an amorphous timetable that Tunisians quickly began to treat with a grain of salt. Whether or not the dialogue should have been declared illegitimate on November 3, a day after it had promised to choose its nominee for prime minister, and a new, technocratic dialogue should have taken over is a tongue-in-cheek question that rarely elicits laughter from Nidaa Tounes supporters. "It's totally different [from the NCA]," a leading candidate for prime minister who had been supported by Nidaa Tounes told me. "The dialogue is informal. The NCA is an official body that made an official promise. It's different."

Frustration with political parties across the board -- and with the indecipherable, seemingly endless politicking going on inside the National Dialogue -- grew steadily amongst Tunisians through the dialogue process. It seemed to many that this new, more "technocratically legitimate" body shared the same time management problems as the NCA, and may have been even less transparent about its internal procedures.

But yesterday, after months of waiting with bated breath, many Tunisians seemed to be breathing a collective sigh of relief. The country's transition appears to be back on track, though it's unclear exactly where the next rails in that transitional track may lay.

Asking dialogue members and leading party members "What's next?" still elicits confusion, though that confusion is now tinged with notes of greater relief and optimism, at least for Ennahda and CPR, the coalition partners that stand to gain the most from a speedy resolution. The longer the sitting government stays in power, the more support it loses. Subsidies on a number of basic products, including foodstuffs and fuel, stand to be gradually slashed early next year, and more security breaches could arise. The buck has to stop somewhere, and Tunisia's sitting government -- particularly Ennahda at its helm -- has taken the brunt of blame for inefficiencies and failure to improve Tunisians' daily material realities. Nidaa Tounes, on the other hand, has gained considerable ground over the past year. Time is on its side, as the party invests in building its ground game up to levels that could compete with Ennahda's pre-existing network of party headquarters and grassroots outreach in the upcoming 2014 elections.

Both parties stand to gain power from being in charge of regional-level administration, especially, at the time the next elections are held. While Nidaa Tounes's claims that Ennahda will surely falsify election results if it holds the reins of power in 2014 are overblown -- especially considering Essebsi's candid admission that he himself falsified election results as minister of the interior under Bourguiba -- Ennahda could use promises of local pork-style projects (such as promising to build low-income housing or to invest in public works projects if re-elected) to induce voters to the polls. Holding power at the time the constitution is finalized would also be a key feather in Ennahda's historical cap. Regardless of what bruising it may take in the next elections, the party could boast about delivering Tunisia's first democratically written constitution. If it exits the current administration entirely, however, it will be unable to make those claims, and will open space for the opposition to gloat of having ousted incompetent neophytes and replaced them with technocratic "statesmen" who were able to deliver on the constitution once and for all.

Ultimately, exactly who holds power in Tunisia's administration won't be as important as the overarching political reform and procedural issues: finalizing the draft constitution, holding fresh elections, and enacting comprehensive transitional justice and institutional reforms. Though much analysis has focused on the political debates, it is these issues of weighty procedure and substantive institutional reform that will make or break Tunisia's transition -- not the opportunistic games of administrative shuffleboard politicians are playing in Tunisia's capital.

On December 15, Tunisia's NCA succeeded in enacting a key piece of reform legislation: a transitional justice law that will lay the groundwork for establishing a truth commission, addressing extrajudicial killings, torture, and rape that happened under the past two administrations, dealing with past misappropriation of funds, and more. These conversations about the past are vitally important for Tunisia. Ad-hoc attempts at transitional justice, such as Ennahda's tendency to reward some of its former political prisoners by appointing them to local posts for which they are sometimes unqualified, and President Moncef Marzouki's recent decision to release the so-called "Black Book," a lengthy document detailing journalists who received pay-offs from Ben Ali to propagandize on his behalf, risk politicizing the transitional justice process. The transitional justice law is thus a critical step in the direction of broader institutional and political reform that goes beyond short-term chessmanship of political actors.

Tunisia's road ahead remains fraught with challenges. Transitions from authoritarian rule are never easy. Tunisian citizens, comparing the disappointments of the past two years with their own revolutionary expectations, tend to be their own harshest critics. Internationals can do more to step up to the plate and remind Tunisia that, for all the obstacles that lay ahead, this transition is moving forward, and that turmoil resulting from years of deep corruption -- particularly in the security and judicial sectors -- will take years to reverse. Those who murdered the politicians Belaid and Brahmi clearly wanted one thing above all else -- to reverse Tunisia's transition by coercing its citizens into the mistaken belief that real change and real freedom simply aren't worth the struggle. Today, we can breath a sigh of relief -- that hasn't happened yet.

Monica Marks is a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate in Middle Eastern Studies at St Antony's College, Oxford. She is based in Tunisia.

SALAH HABIBI/AFP/Getty Images

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