Tunisia’s growth slows, dialogue resumes

Photo: NDI

Photo: NDI

Tunisia‘s growth slowed to 2.2 percent in the first quarter of the year compared with 2.7 percent in the same period a year earlier due to a slowdown in most sectors, the central bank said on Thursday, Reuters reports:

The North African country has turned its attention to economic revival after almost completing its full steps to democracy three years after the 2011 revolution that ousted autocrat Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali.

The country’s national dialogue will resume on Friday, said Houcine Abassi, Secretary-General of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) following a meeting with Mustapha Ben Jaafar, the President of the National Constituent Assembly.

“The date of presidential and legislative elections will be on the agenda,” he said. “No date has been fixed yet for the holding of elections with seven months to go before the year-end deadline, as set forth in the transitional provisions of the Constitution,” Abassi highlighted.

Tunisia still needs to dismantle and reform the structures of the old dictatorship, including the police and the Ministry of Interior, writes Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, who visited political, business, and civil society leaders in Tunisia as part of a recent trip with the International Crisis Group:

Close observers say that the success of the country’s democratic transition depends on the government’s ability to decentralise as well. The concentration of government at the national level has bred corruption. As rights activists Sihem Bensedrine put it: “As long as [the] administration is centralised, it gets many privileges.” Decentralisation (establishing more empowered regional governments) has been enshrined in the new Constitution to allow a more equitable distribution of revenue and governance.

“The country has long been divided by its coastal wealth and poorer interior,” former Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali had explained to me and our small group of international visitors. Some legislators are thus looking to redraw regions so each includes both coastal and interior areas.

With Tunisia’s new constitution ratified and election preparations underway, citizens are optimistic about political progress and the gradually improving security situation, but they are concerned with high unemployment, rising prices and poor service delivery, according to a new round of focus group research by the National Democratic Institute.

The focus groups, conducted April 10-17 with 142 participants from four cities across the country, build on nine previous rounds of public opinion research conducted by NDI since March 2011. Respondents discussed their views of political parties and institutions, their perspectives on progress to date, and their priorities going forward, including expectations regarding the next elections. Key findings include:

  • In a reversal from previous NDI research, the majority of participants believes the country is headed in the right direction, citing political milestones including adoption of the constitution and the handover to a caretaker government. Enthusiasm about political progress is nevertheless tempered by ongoing anxiety over the economic situation.
  • Despite their positive impressions, citizens report low awareness of the contents of the constitution and the next steps in the electoral process, and they are eager for better outreach from political leaders on those subjects.
  • Political parties are often viewed as talking “at” citizens. Tunisians want leaders to engage in genuine dialogue with them on their concerns and to present realistic solutions.
  • Tunisians admit to confusion about the election commission, the ISIE, and some have doubts about its ability to run transparent elections. They thus view election observation, particularly by domestic civil society organizations, as crucial in safeguarding elections, especially as many anticipate infractions by political parties.
  • Views are mixed on controversial provisions of the electoral law debated by the NCA, particularly on exclusion of former regime and ruling party members from running as candidates and the institution of an electoral threshold. The latter provision would require parties to secure 3 percent of votes nationwide to obtain seats in parliament.
  • Despite some disillusionment, most citizens are committed to exercising their right to vote. They are especially interested in municipal elections, which are seen as vital to resolving local problems.

    NDI, a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy, is sharing the findings with leaders of ruling and opposition political parties, civil society organizations and the government to inform the policy-making process and encourage increased responsiveness to citizens’ interests and needs. The research was made possible by funding from the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative.


Can secular parties lead the new Tunisia?

ATUNISIA UGTTs they look toward the next general election, Tunisia’s secular parties, largely sidelined after the revolution, are seeking greater prominence in politics, notes Anne Wolf, an associate at the Center for the Study of the International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa at the University of Cambridge. To achieve this goal, they must tackle deep-seated challenges and find a way to cooperate more closely, she writes in an analysis for the Carnegie Endowment.

  • Tunisian politics are more complex than a binary competition between secularists and Islamists. Secular parties’ ideological rivalries, strategic differences, and leadership divisions undermine their force in politics.
  • After the 2011 revolution that ousted then president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, secular parties failed to form strong coalitions, develop regional networks, or create viable party platforms, often using anti-Islamist rhetoric to attract voters instead of offering solutions to Tunisia’s challenges. Some were perceived to have been co-opted by Ben Ali’s regime.
  • Under the Troika, secular parties with a well-defined platform and ideological stance, especially regarding the ruling Islamist Ennahda party, proved more resilient than ideologically diverse parties or those relying on a popular leader to unite a fragmented base.
  • Many secular parties lack internal democracy, with leaders making decisions unilaterally or with their cronies, who act in their self-interest.
  • Generally, secular parties legalized before the revolution are experiencing a generational clash, with the old guard clinging to power and resisting structural reform, while parties legalized after the revolution lack a clear unifying vision and strategy.

Secular voices like the Nidaa Tounes party and the Popular Front coalition, backed by major media outlets and civil society organizations, have gained popular support since the NSF forced the Troika’s resignation.

The NSF’s success in forcing the Islamists out of power was not only due to the unified front it maintained over a period of several months. The support of other powerful domestic forces also played a key role, especially that of the media and Tunisia’s labor union, the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT).

With a media and public opinion that hostile toward the government, it was only a question of when and how the Troika would resign, and what would come next—a task that was taken up by the UGTT, which allied with three other civil society organizations in what came to be called the “Quartet.” These actors became the primary, although deeply partial, mediators between the Troika government and the NSF.

Tunisia’s powerful UGTT was quick to support the NSF’s demand for a new government, although it did not support the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, which was then just weeks away from finalizing the country’s constitution. A senior militant of the UGTT argued that the assembly “as a body was elected and approved by the population, but the Troika government had no popular support and was dominated by Ennahda. . . . We are a labor union and try to remain neutral, but of course we can never trust an Islamist movement that is first of all accountable to the Muslim Brotherhood and not to Tunisians.”

With a membership of almost 700,000, the UGTT is arguably Tunisia’s most powerful organization, priding itself on a long history of political activism—including the role it played in the ousting of Ben Ali.13 Its leadership has traditionally been secular, although all ideological currents are represented in the union, and Islamists are increasingly active at the grass roots. An internal UGTT law requires all members to have at least nine years of militancy to reach a leadership position, a requirement most Islamists do not meet, given the fierce repression and imprisonment they suffered under the old regime.14 “After the revolution, the Islamists tried to infiltrate the leadership, but we managed to resist,” recalled a senior leader.

This is one reason that the fall of the Ennahda government was a priority for most UGTT leaders, who even called upon the union’s base to join the NSF protests in front of the Constituent Assembly. Yet the labor union stopped short of formally joining the NSF, considering itself to be more influential as a mediator between various political forces. Together with the employers’ union, the Tunisian Human Rights League, and the Tunisian Bar Association—the other members of the Quartet—the UGTT negotiated between the Troika and the opposition during the national dialogue and advanced the road map. The Quartet’s support of the NSF was therefore crucial in forcing the resignation of the Islamist-led government and the establishment of a government of technocrats, tasked primarily with organizing the next elections.

Recommendations for Tunisia’s Secular Parties

Move beyond anti-Islamist rhetoric and fix structural problems. Secular parties need to address their dependency on single-personality politics, lack of party platforms, ideological fragmentation, and resistance to a new generation of leaders. Failure to do so risks a gradual decrease in their current momentum.

Put aside old rivalries to create strong, lasting coalitions. Divisions and frictions will remain as long as secular leaders continue prioritizing personal ambitions or rivalries over unity and collaboration. To maximize their leverage, secular parties should form several coalitions based on common ideological principles and cooperate through the NSF to advance their shared interests.

Democratize from within. To promote party unity, leaders of secular parties should consider the views of all members, not just a small cadre of elites, when making decisions.


Anne Wolf is an associate at the Center for the Study of the International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa at the University of Cambridge. She has spent the last three years in Tunisia, where she is conducting research on the country’s democratic transition, Islamism, and secular party politics.

Economic assistance alone won’t secure Tunisia’s transition

TUNISIA UGTTSince the start of the 2011 Arab uprisings, a debate has emerged in Washington concerning the focus on development assistance in response to citizen demands for economic advancement and more accountable governance, notes Scott Mastic, the director for Middle East and North Africa programs at the International Republican Institute. Advocates of economic assistance argue that popular demands for jobs and an improved quality of life is what drove citizens to the streets in Tunisia, Egypt, and beyond; therefore, U.S. policy should prioritize programs supporting economic stability and growth, he writes for the Fikra Forum.

A new poll by the International Republican Institute (IRI) shows that Tunisian citizens directly tie perceptions of their economic situation to the political transition’s progress, revealing an important linkage between both factors. This data suggests that progress on the political track is crucial to effectively managing the public’s mood about the state of the economy. At the start of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, initial public euphoria was high with 79 percent indicating that the country was headed in the right direction. However, by October 2013, with little to show in the way of progress in the country’s political transition, that number flipped to 79 percent saying that Tunisia was moving in the wrong direction.

In this most recent poll, IRI’s first since Tunisia’s formation of a caretaker technocratic government and passage of a new constitution, numbers have again shifted toward the positive (right direction up 31 points). The key indicator that changed between the October 2013 and February 2014 surveys was future economic expectations. In asking people what they expect about their household financial situation in the next year, the February survey revealed a 18 point positive shift in the number of people saying that they expect it to get either somewhat better (37 to 51 percent) or much better (7 to 11 percent).

Trends in IRI polling data in Tunisia and elsewhere suggest that the immediate post-election period will see another positive leap in both public attitudes and expectations. The trends underscore the importance of a U.S. policy that provides economic assistance, but also one that helps the current government and next government achieve success by effectively managing expectations and delivering on core democratic governance principles……


Scott Mastic is the director for Middle East and North Africa programs at the International Republican Institute, a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy.


UGTT key to Tunisia’s ‘historic step toward democracy’

TUNISIA UGTTWhat has made Tunisia an exception compared to other severely tested Arab Spring countries? In other words, what has allowed Tunisia to avoid replicating the Egyptian scenario and to instead lay down the foundations of consensual legitimacy? asks Mohamed Kerrou, a nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center specializing in Islam and civil society in Tunisia and the Middle East.

Tunisia’s consensus was only possible thanks to an inclusive national dialogue brokered by the “Quartet”—an alliance between the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), the employers’ union, the Tunisian Bar Association, and the country’s Human Rights League, he writes for the Carnegie Endowment. A multitude of factors combined to make this dialogue a success despite Tunisia’s bumpy democratic transition, which, far from being completed, remains to be consolidated. In particular, four key factors explain the historic compromise reached in Tunisia: the army’s professional and apolitical status, the lessons learned from the Egyptian transition, civil society’s rallying behind the UGTT-led Quartet, and the conciliatory and decisive role played by political leaders.

Civil Society Activism: The General Union of Tunisian Workers

If Tamarod [the anti-Islamist (Rebel) Movement] had a different outcome in Tunisia than in Egypt, it is mainly due to Tunisia’s competing and better structured political forces within civil society. In recent years, Tunisia’s deeply rooted civil society has reinvigorated its resistance first to the tyranny of Ben Ali and, after the 2011 revolution, to the ruling Troika government, which tended to reproduce the same system of government as Ben Ali’s without reinstating a moral and political authority. A key pillar of Tunisian civil society is the country’s labor union, the UGTT. 

With a role tantamount to that of the army in Egypt, the UGTT derives its strength from its history and organizational structure. After its inception in the aftermath of World War II, the UGTT joined forces with the national movement and emerged as a political player. 

tunisia_ugtt(1)Shortly after Tunisia’s independence in 1956, the country’s hegemonic ruling party instituted one-party rule, claiming it was the only guarantee of national unity. Throughout the ensuing decades of partisan and autocratic rule, the UGTT has been a haven for members of the opposition, a platform where they can have their voices heard, claim their rights, and learn democracy. 

Far from being just a workers’ organization, the UGTT is an all-embracing body open to all professionals, be they teachers, doctors, or laborers, among others. It unites the poor segments of society as well as the middle classes, which together make up a significant portion of Tunisia’s population—the UGTT represents 1 million unionists out of a total population of more than 10 million people. A champion of economic and corporatist demands that serve different occupations and professions, the UGTT acts as the link between state and society. It is both a lobbying group and a grassroots organization that is more inclined toward dialogue than confrontation. 

Since the revolution, as Tunisia’s most powerful civil society organization, the UGTT opposed the Troika government without seeking to present itself as an alternative or to fight the ruling power. This opposition continued in spite of attacks on UGTT headquarters and supporters by the pro-Ennahda League for the Protection of the Revolution, which is comprised of groups of Salafists who have engaged in various violent incidents in Tunisia since 2011. 

The union’s leadership remains nonpartisan, but its base brings together people of all political stripes, including Destourians, Arab nationalists, leftists, and Islamists. The UGTT serves as a unifying organization that speaks on behalf of the masses, seeks to remain independent from political regimes, and champions social justice and freedom—key requirements of the anti-Troika revolution it has spearheaded despite its national leadership’s political alignment with the old regime.

In early 2013, the UGTT proposed a national dialogue as a means to resolve Tunisia’s domestic economic and political crises. On the economic front, the country was experiencing price hikes, inflation, a budget deficit, public debt, and a downturn in investments—all signs of crisis. The political challenges were reflected in the rise of violence and instability and in the people’s lack of confidence in their inexperienced rulers, many of whom made partisan-based public service appointments. 

Motivated by political nepotism and social solidarity, these appointments undermined the authorities’ credibility and saddled the public state budget with additional wage-related expenditures. In addition, instability continued unabated under the Troika. Terrorism became increasingly frequent in Mount Chaambi and in urban peripheral areas following the assassinations of three political opposition leaders—Mohamed Lotfi Nagdh in October 2012, Chokri Belaid in February 2013, and Mohamed Brahmi in July 2013—reportedly by Salafi jihadists. 

Against this backdrop of crises and tension, the UGTT played a decisive role in brokering Tunisia’s historic compromise. It revived dialogue and masterfully combined forces, for the first time in its history, with the employers’ union, forming an influential counterbalance to the Troika government’s attempts to monopolize power. This alliance was dictated by the economic crisis, which was harming workers and employers alike, and by the will of the UGTT’s leaders to salvage the country from looming disaster. 

By allying themselves with two other associations known for their track records and symbolic weight, the Tunisian Bar Association (which had openly supported the uprising) and Tunisia’s Human Rights League, which became the first such body in the Arab world upon its establishment in 1977, the workers’ and employers unions’ established political balance, forcing the Troika government to negotiate. The Quartet managed to narrow differences and wipe out domestic political polarization between the Troika, on the one hand, and the secular opposition—rallying behind the Nidaa Tounes party, the Popular Front, and other groups within the secular opposition alliance known as the National Salvation Front—on the other hand.


After Ennahda: Tunisia’s Struggle for Political Pluralism

tunisia_ugtt(1)Tunisians have every right to be proud that their country’s political transition remains on track. But major security, economic, and political challenges remain, according to a new analysis.

Tunisia will need substantial international assistance to solve these problems, and there is an appetite among Tunisian political actors for greater U.S. engagement since ensuring a successful transition will advance U.S. interests and values in the region, according to Tunisia’s Struggle for Political Pluralism After Ennahda, a new report from the Center for American Progress:

Tunisia’s leading political forces have so far managed to avoid direct confrontation, but deep distrust and substantial disagreements over its future persist between Ennahda and the country’s non-Islamists, say Hardin Lang, Mokhtar Awad, Peter Juul, and Brian Katulis, the report’s authors.

The Salafi community, which has a small but active wing of young extremist men, poses a challenge not just to Ennahda but to Tunisia as a whole. To better assess these divisions, the Center for American Progress conducted field research in Tunisia through in-depth interviews with the leadership of Ennahda; members of the Salafi community; representatives of country’s main umbrella non-Islamist party, Nidaa Tunis; and several independent political analysts.

This report provides a snapshot of Tunisia’s political transition around the time of the third anniversary of Tunisia’s 2011 Jasmine Revolution. It examines the main Islamist and non-Islamist forces, the tensions between them, and the implications for Tunisia’s continued transition, with a focus on Ennahda as the pivotal actor of the past two years. The report takes stock of the main obstacles confronting Tunisia’s democratic transition, identifies the major trends in the Salafi community, assesses the state of Ennahda-Salafi relations, and analyzes the non-Islamist opposition. It concludes with suggested recommendations for U.S. policymakers. In brief, the report’s key findings include:

  • Tunisia faces continued challenges in its political transition. Despite the agreement on the constitution, the economic and security challenges facing Tunisia’s new political order are daunting. A caretaker government with limited power and unproven political legitimacy is charged with producing results for a Tunisian public impatient for tangible improvements in daily life. Substantive and deep reconciliation between Islamist and non-Islamist political forces remains elusive.
  • Ennahda is focused on getting its own house in order. The abrupt transition from exile and prison to political office left Ennahda little time to build internal strategic consensus. Historical divisions have become more pronounced as the Ennahda rank and file struggle to understand the party leadership’s decisions over the past year to voluntarily surrender control of the government and support a constitution that makes no reference to Sharia. Bridging these internal divides and building cohesion will be a major focus for Ennahda going forward.
  • Ennahda is leaving office, not power. Ennahda remains the most powerful bloc in the National Constituent Assembly with 90 seats out of 217 seats. Ennahda maintains a relatively robust election infrastructure, which it is mobilizing for the elections later this year. The leadership sees a natural role for the movement in parliamentary opposition. Most observers consider Ennahda well positioned to capture the second-largest block of votes in the next election, and the Islamist movement will likely remain a significant political force.
  • The struggle over the role of religion in Tunisia’s transition continues. Ennahda’s decision to back away from the inclusion of Sharia in the constitution paved the way for a final agreement, but many in Ennahda and the broader Islamist camp are unhappy with the result and are likely to press for a different outcome in the next stages of Tunisia’s transition. Ennahda may now look to pass legislation in parliament on key religious issues that they could not write into the constitution.
  • Salafi frustration is on the rise. Salafis appear unified in their frustration and disdain for the path of conciliation that Ennahda chose regarding Sharia law in the constitution and handing over power to a technocratic government. Nonviolent Salafi activists consider Ennahda weak-willed and are sympathetic to their Salafi jihadi counterparts. If their views are reflective of the wider Salafi community, a more militant Salafi current may be on the rise with Ennahda in its crosshairs.
  • Tunisia’s ascendant non-Islamists are prone to fracturing. Tunisia’s non-Islamist political parties and organizations are unified in opposition to the country’s Islamists under the banner of Nidaa Tunis. However, there is little else holding this coalition together. Constituent parties and individual members are at odds on policy matters and vocal in their suspicion of each other. There are signs that the coalition is already beginning to fracture.
  • The state bureaucracy and civil service remain a potential flashpoint. Ennahda appointments to key government ministries were part of a strategy to gain influence over the civil service. Non-Islamists and some civil servants saw the appointments as an effort to Islamize the state and may seek to purge those who remain. This issue could become the next front in the standoff between non-Islamists and Ennahda.Washington should consider taking the following steps in order to help consolidate Tunisia’s continued democratic transition:
  • Enhance U.S. diplomatic engagement. The United States should recognize the recent accomplishments of Tunisia’s transition through the establishment of a strategic dialogue on the occasion of Tunisian Prime Minister Jomaa’s visit to Washington this month. The United States should continue to build diplomatic momentum by establishing a framework and benchmarks for eventually elevating this dialogue to a strategic partnership. On the ground, U.S. diplomats should seek to broaden and deepen the dialogue through political and civil society outreach and economic statecraft. Support should be provided to ensure that Tunisia can hold the next round of elections before the end of 2014.
  • Mobilize economic assistance from bilateral and multilateral donors. The United States should mobilize donors around a shared plan to shore up the Tunisian economy, building on the $1.7 billion in aid recently unlocked by the international financial institutions, or IFIs. The United States should bolster its own bilateral economic assistance while coordinating with France and the Gulf states to deepen their engagement. The United States should also signal its intent to pursue a free trade agreement with Tunisia, while encouraging the European Union to do the same.
  • Bolster U.S assistance to help combat extremist violence. The United States should review the level of support it provides to the Tunisian military and security services in their efforts to combat extremist violence. Additional U.S. security assistance could include equipment, joint military exercises, activities of the U.S.-Tunisian Joint Military Commission, and resources to better protect and manage Tunisia’s borders.
  • Increase support to security and justice sector reform. The United States, together with its EU partners, should engage the Tunisian government to design and implement a comprehensive program to professionalize the country’s security and justice sectors and to bring these institutions under the control of Tunisia’s elected officials. The United States should increase its financial commitment to this effort beyond the $24 million so far provided to the Tunisian Interior Ministry.RTWT

    Hardin Lang is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Mokhtar Awad is a Research Associate at the Center. Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at the Center. Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center.