The Middle East Channel

Trouble Ahead in Divided Tunisia

On January 2, deputies in Tunisia's National Constituent Assembly (NCA) returned to the negotiating table to finalize the country's new constitution. Political rancor has plagued the drafting process since its beginning in late 2011; ideological and cultural divisions between Ennahda, the Islamist party that holds a plurality of seats in the NCA, and the largely secular opposition have reverberated through Tunisia's evolving political landscape. As the constitution nears completion, deep polarization continues to wrack the political scene. Feuds within the NCA reflect long-standing social tension in Tunisia that will likely outlast the drafting process and limit partisan diversity in years to come. Heated debate over Islam's role in the country's constitution has distracted leaders from Tunisia's underlying socioeconomic problems, leaving the uprising's key grievances unaddressed. 

After producing three draft constitutions since 2012, NCA members are debating proposed amendments to each article in order to finalize the text in January. The opposition has emerged victorious over Ennahda on several contentious articles in current debates -- notably those pertaining to religion's social and political role -- earning praise from what the international media considers a resolution to persistent disputes. French daily Le Monde declared that the government had finally "turned its back on sharia" and Libération congratulated the NCA, immediately characterizing a reference to male and female citizens' equal rights as a leap forward in gender equality. While these statements highlight areas of progress, they overstate the degree of consensus among political actors moving forward.

Although tensions punctuate the text, which remains fraught with ambiguity despite the removal of provocative language, many observers consider the new constitution to soundly guarantee human rights and transcend contentious views that hindered progress thus far. But the constitution itself is not the sole barometer of ideological polarization; attitudes amongst deputies shed light on a far more hostile and complex process than voting trends explain. During interviews I conducted in August 2013, Selim Ben Abdessalem, a deputy from the Nida Tounes party, insisted on Ennahda's "obsession with protecting the sacred at the expense of free speech," and opposition member and activist Salma Baccar told me that she regarded the party's conciliatory public posture suspiciously, convinced that Ennahda would continue to pursue sharia as a national legal framework.

These members' attitudes recalled the political atmosphere during the summer of 2013, when opposition deputy Mohamed Brahmi's assassination prompted over 60 opposition members to withdraw from the NCA, triggering its subsequent suspension in early August. But Ennahda deputy Habib Ellouze's January 5 outburst, during which he accused the Popular Front's Mongi Rahoui of being an "enemy to Islam," shows that the personal enmity between Ennahda members and secular deputies is deep-seated and present even at moments where opposing parties are seemingly willing to negotiate. Rahoui reacted by vigorously defending his Muslim heritage and affirming each member of his family's Islamic faith. Unsurprisingly, the altercation did not go unnoticed; Ellouze's accusations of heresy were a hair-raising reminder of the rhetoric that preceded the assassinations of Brahmi and opposition member Chokri Belaid. Rumors of death threats to numerous opposition members circulated, causing the Interior Ministry to adopt precautionary security measures. The episode illustrates that the new constitution's exclusion of sharia resulted from compromise, not consensus, among discordant parties whose mutual mistrust and suspicion could destabilize the transition's next steps.

The feud also exposed divisions within Ennahda itself, challenging the notion of the party's monolithic character. Immediately decrying the incident, Ennahda Party spokesperson and NCA deputy Zied Ladhari described Ellouze's intervention as an aberration from the party's desire to engage in dialogue with the opposition. Ladhari's announcement is one of many instances where high-ranking Ennahda members have felt compelled to clarify or downplay party members' controversial statements.

If interactions on the assembly floor alone do not attest to the process's ongoing instability, the proposed amendments to the constitution offer written documentation of the persistent rifts over Islam's role in Tunisian society. Article 38, which guarantees public education "grounded in Arab-Muslim identity," came under fire from Tunisian secularists after its approval in early January. And although Ennahda, attempting to present itself as moderate during the 2011 electoral campaign, assured Tunisians that it would not impose sharia, the term appeared in the party's January 2012 draft proposal. Party leader Rachid Ghannouchi eventually ceded to international pressure and public protest, officially renouncing the potential inclusion of sharia in the new constitution shortly thereafter. His clarification provided early evidence of the party's internal schisms, but also seemingly put the question of sharia law to rest.

The issue's reemergence in current debates attests to the fragile consensus binding Tunisia's transition, exposing a dynamic political environment too often portrayed as static and homogeneous. The lack of confidence within the assembly and on the street further weakens the country's social fabric, as citizens are frustrated that their initial demands for jobs and security remain unaddressed. "We're fed up," Mouheb Garoui, the director of a youth organization, told me in an interview last summer. "Politicians said they couldn't handle the economy because of the constitution, but so far there's no constitution. So what are we supposed to expect, when we're unemployed and deputies keep discussing Islam, an outdated topic?" Frustrated Tunisians see a functional and legitimate democratic system, grounded in free elections, that has failed to consecrate the uprising's objectives.

As the country moves forward, its volatile political reality will continue to weigh on political processes, and heated disagreements will likely recur, confounding outside interpretations of a settled transition. Dynamics within the NCA reflect a political landscape evolving during a period of democratic apprenticeship, as divisive ideologies fill the post-revolutionary scene. Paradoxically, this chaotic period of political self-discovery has not necessarily widened opportunities for political affiliation, but has instead forced Tunisians to choose between religion and secularism. Stark demarcation between Ennahda and the rest could hamper democratic consolidation, creating a contrived system of dueling ideologies that will continue to distract from the country's core challenges.

Karina Piser is a Master's student in International Security at the L'Institut d'Etudes Politiques (Sciences Po) in Paris, France. She recently returned from Tunis, where she spent three months conducting research for her thesis on the constitution-drafting process.

FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Egypt's Good, Bad, and Ugly

Many Egyptians are going to the polls this week to vote in a referendum on an amended constitution. Since the military ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi on July 3, 2013, this is the first electoral test the military backed interim government will face. As such, both opponents and supporters are pitching the referendum as not a vote on a constitutional document, but on Egypt's new administration and the current road-map. As external observers and Egyptians await the results of the constitutional referendum held on the January 14 and 15, and the impending anniversary of the January 25 revolution, all wonder -- what next?

The state's forces are on the same side, but they're not all on the same page. Egypt's state is not a unified body, but a collection of institutions that are concerned with their own independence from each other. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has its own interests, which are distinct from that of the ministry of the interior, which are distinct from the interim cabinet of Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi. As a collective, the state enjoys support from most of the media apparatus that is permitted to operate in the country (private and state-run media differs little in this regard). But when that is broken down, it's clear that the interim cabinet enjoys the least amount of support from the media networks, where criticism of it can be tremendous.

On the whole, the state can count on the support of the majority of the populace for the continuation of the road map -- but that is tied predominantly to the popularity of the military establishment. Egypt's military has been vastly popular throughout the post Hosni Mubarak era until July 3, enjoying the confidence of between 80 and 95 percent of the population according to Gallup polls and others. Just prior to July 3, it was in the 90s -- since then it has likely dropped due to the loss of support from the Muslim Brotherhood that had backed the military up to that point. However, that still places the military in an advantageous position vis-à-vis any other force in the country.

The question is -- what happens to that support for the state, and for the military, in the event that General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi runs for the presidency? Should he do so, he is likely to win by a landslide, and then will become personally responsible for the conduct of the state as president. He may be the single most powerful person in the country at present, but he is not openly governing it. With a Sisi-presidency, that changes.

A President Sisi will have to face intense economic problems as well as security concerns that are only likely to intensify in the coming year. Militant attacks are likely to continue -- whether they intensify or not remains to be seen. That may be linked to increased and continued repression by the security forces. In either case, the attacks are disruptive, as are continued protests, which affect Egypt's image internationally and thus contribute to a sluggish return of investors. If the next president is unable to address these issues and concerns in a way that does not satisfy swathes of the population, will a critical mass organize against him?

If that were even to happen (and there is no guarantee it would, for a number of reasons): would that reflect badly upon the military establishment itself? Not necessarily -- Hosni Mubarak was a military man who became president, and his fall from grace was that of himself, not the military. The military does not directly and openly govern in Egypt, even while it is the most powerful institution in the country and has a veto on governance. As long as there are civilian faces to blame, the military can avoid scrutiny, with or without a Sisi-presidency.

The main source of opposition to the forces that back the state is the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Anti-Coup Alliance that it leads. The Brotherhood's first, second, and much of its third tier leadership is either in custody or in exile. Its main aim is to disrupt the state's road-map, in the hopes that disruption will lead to an improvement in the Brotherhood's political fortunes. It is unclear why dissatisfaction with the government would lead to a corresponding increase in popularity for the Brotherhood, however. Nevertheless, within the country, protests are the mechanism through which the Brotherhood seeks to disrupt the process from within the country. Outside of the country, different pro-Brotherhood networks and groupings are lobbying governments to put pressure on the Egyptian state and unsettle its international standing. It is not clear they are having much of an effect, as the international community does not generally see the return of the Brotherhood to power as a practical possibility, or the dislodgement of the current Egyptian power structure as feasible.

Moreover, the Brotherhood is handicapped in terms of attracting wider support inside and outside of Egypt. The Brotherhood already lost swathes of popular support during Morsi's tenure, and its support base just prior to the ouster of Morsi was between 15 and 20 percent. In a public arena where the media is polarized, and has described the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization for months, it will be difficult to regain popular standing, even if the government becomes more unpopular. The continuation of sectarian rhetoric from Brotherhood sources, and its equivocation (blaming the state or shadowy state-aligned forces) with regards to militant attacks, makes regaining popular ground difficult.

The Brotherhood has another challenge, which is to hold its membership and support in check. The repression of the state's security forces and the McCarthy-like hysteria about the Brotherhood in much of the media has consequences. The Brotherhood's modus operandi is not a terrorist one, and non-Brotherhood groups are claiming responsibility for the political violence underway. However, it is unclear what effect continued repression may have in Egypt and with the Brotherhood. Plausibly, Brotherhood supporters and members may desert it in droves as they choose to take up arms against the state, bolstering the efforts of existing militant groups, and fundamentally reducing the relevance of the Brotherhood in terms of opposition to the state. 

The "good" in the story of the "good," the "bad," and the "ugly" in Egypt's epic power struggle and political scene probably finds support among no more than 5 to 10 percent of the country's population. Under Mubarak, a small community of journalists and civil rights activists agitated for change -- and found a catalyst that led to the January 25 protests in 2011. Over the past three years, their numbers swelled, and they are a notable force. Human rights groups, certain media outlets, significant figures in different political parties, some intellectuals, civil society organizations, and a few umbrella political movements make up this "maverick middle."

Consistently critical of both the state as well as the Brotherhood, they are under pressure from both camps. Supporters of the authorities tend to regard these mavericks as seditious, against the backdrop of a "War on Terror" which all are expected to fall in line behind. Backers of the Brotherhood perceive these figures as insufficiently against the military establishment as they do not back the Anti-Coup Alliance, preferring to remain as independents, join the umbrella political movement called "The Way of the Revolutionary Path," or work for change from within other political parties.

This middle group does not enjoy the potential to become a potent political force in the near future -- it is too disparate, and does not possess sufficient popular support to be able to compete with either the Brotherhood or the forces currently backing the road-map. It is, however, the main force in Egypt that is pushing for reform, and rejects the current polarization. It is persistent, as it always has been -- but effects from this portion of Egyptian society are likely to show themselves over the medium to long term, and not in the immediate future. There may be another revolutionary moment that presents itself, as it did in January 2011, but under these current circumstances, that is not apparent on the horizon.

There are reasons why the Egypt portfolio has dropped in importance within the Obama administration. One of them is the feeling of impotence to effect much change in the country. The irony of this is that the Muslim Brotherhood feels the United States has huge influence on how the Egyptian authorities proceed, and many forces backing those same authorities criticize the United States for "backing" the Brotherhood. The truth is somewhere between these positions -- the United States has more leverage than the administration admits, but has far less than what it is accused of by Egyptians writ large.

Bilateral attempts by the United States to engage constructively with the Egyptian authorities do not have much hope of success in the short to medium term, and perhaps even in the long term. A multilateral one, however, may. An effort that involves the United States, as well as countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and European Union member states, may have a different outcome. The "War on Terror" paradigm the authorities are operating within is ultimately not a source of stabilization for the Egyptian state. The repercussions of it, as they intensify, have knock on effects on the economy and civil rights in Egypt. It will take a special kind of conglomerate of countries to constructively advise Egypt on these issues, without being ignored or dismissed.

The Egyptian state's desire to ensure violence remains the purview of official institutions needn't be questioned, and there is a genuine militant threat that must be tackled. However, many of the ways in which the state pursues its goals, particularly with regards to the excessive use of force, and disproportionate penalties on the press and political movements, are contrary to its international agreements. They not only fail to deliver stability, but also could result in "blowback" that invites further instability. Certainly, they do not do justice to the noble efforts of many Egyptians over the past three years to build a genuinely pluralistic and just system to replace the old, corrupted one.

H.A. Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Project on U.S.-Islamic World Relations at the Brookings Institution, and ISPU, is a specialist on Arab politics. Follow him on Twitter: @hahellyer.

Ed Giles/Getty Images