Tunisia’s transition ‘faces toughest stage’

tunisia demoTunisia’s first full elected parliament held its opening session on Tuesday with a challenge to implement the democracy its people sought when they marched in the 2011 revolt against autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Reuters reports:

The country that saw the first of the Arab Spring revolts chose a temporary national assembly in 2011 to draw up the new constitution approved early this year. The full parliament will sit for the next five years. That constitution has been hailed as one of the most progressive in the Arab world and an example of Tunisia being a model for transition in a regional in turmoil.

“We have achieved the theoretical side by approving a progressive constitution but today we face the toughest stage, which is how we apply this constitution,” Mustapha Ben Jaafar, president of the former transitional assembly, told lawmakers.

Tunisians achieved another first since the Arab uprisings began almost four years ago, casting their vote for president on November 23 in free and open elections. The leading candidates-Beji Caid Essebsi, former regime official and leader of Nidaa Tounes, and interim president Moncef Marzouki-will face each other in a runoff at the end of this month. The race reflects the tension between Tunisians’ need for familiar leadership in light of growing insecurity and their aspiration to fulfill the promise of the Jasmine Revolution.

tunisia_ugtt(1)What insights, in terms of voter turnout and civic engagement, does the first presidential round reveal about the country’s outlook? How will the presidential election result determine the formation of the new government? What role is Ennahda poised to play in Tunisia’s future? What opportunities and challenges will the elected leadership face in terms of consensus building and governance?

Please join a discussion of these and other questions with Hariri Center Nonresident Fellow Bassem Bouguerra, a security sector reform advocate and recent candidate for Tunisia’s parliament, and Jeffrey England , deputy regional director for Middle East and North Africa programs at the National Democratic Institute, who observed the parliamentary and presidential elections in Tunisia in the last two months.

Thursday, December 11, 2014 9:30 – 11:00 AM A light breakfast will be served. 

1030 15th Street NW 12th Floor (West Tower Elevator) Washington, DC


The Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy cordially invites you to a press conference panel on:

Tunisia’s Landmark Presidential Elections: Referendum,  Revolution or Restoration?

Welcoming Remarks:His Excellency Mohamed Ezzine Chelaifa  Tunisian Ambassador to the United States (invited)

Conference Panelists:  

Radwan Masmoudi President, Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (and Tunisian presidential campaign expert)

Marina Ottaway  Senior Associate, Middle East Program, Wilson Center (presidential campaign commentator)

Jeffrey England Deputy Regional Director for MENA, National Democratic Institute (presidential and parliamentary election observation leader)

Hal Ferguson Deputy Regional Director for MENA, International Republican Institute (presidential and parliamentary election observation leader)

Robert Worth  Contributor, New York Times Magazine (presidential campaign commentator)

Moderator and Chair:

 Dr. William Lawrence Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy and American Tunisian Association

Tuesday, December 2, 2014 1:30 to 3:30 p.m.

National Press Club Fourth Estate Restaurant 529 14th St. NW, 13th Floor Washington DC 20045

Light refreshments will be served

Western aid will help consolidate Tunisia’s emerging democracy

tunisia demoAn official under former hardline ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali appears set for a close run-off in Tunisia’s presidential polls with a rival who says he represents the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprising that toppled him, Reuters reports:

Preliminary results in the country’s first presidential ballot since the uprising are expected later on Monday. But the parties of two frontrunners said initial tallies showed they would face off in next month’s second round…..One frontrunner, Beji Caid Essebsi, who was parliament chief under Ben Ali, has cast himself as a veteran technocrat. He will face off with Moncef Marzouki, the current president who has warned against return of “one-party era” figures like Essebsi.

Many Tunisians weighed security concerns against the freedoms brought by their revolution and by its democratic reforms, which have remained on track in sharp contrast to the upheavals brought by the Arab Spring elsewhere in the region, including the military coup in Egypt and the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya, AP reports.

Exit polls suggested that neither of the two leading candidates was likely to win an outright majority and that a runoff between them would be necessary. Official results were not expected for one or two days, The New York Times adds.

“The presidential election is the last milestone on Tunisia’s transitional path,” said Abdel Latif Hannachi, a professor of modern history at Manouba University in Tunis. It should herald a period of “democratic consolidation,” he said.

tunisia_ugtt(1)Outside the cosmopolitan coastal capital of Tunis, front-runner Essebsi, an 87-year-old politician who served under two autocratic regimes, is seen as an unsettling relic of the autocratic regimes that ruled Tunisia from its independence from France in 1956 until the 2010 uprising, The Wall Street Journal reports (HT: FPI).

“There is a guarantor of our revolution and it is our civil society,” said Ghazi Mrabet, a prominent civil-rights attorney and political analyst. “It has proved uncompromising in our transition to democracy and forced compromise and dialogue,” he tells the Journal:

Through a vibrant array of worker unions, legal associations and women’s rights groups, Tunisia’s citizens have held unusual sway in moderating between the dominant forces in the nation: Islamists who gained early support for their opposition to Mr. Ben Ali’s regime, and former regime figures who have recast themselves as experienced statesmen uniquely equipped to manage the nation during a turbulent period.

The next round is likely to see a framing of ‘democrats versus anti-democrats’ rather than ‘secular versus Islamists’ as in other countries, notes David McLaughlin, an election observer with the National Democratic Institute for the election.

This is because the second-place party in the legislature, the Islamic Ennahda party, did not field a presidential candidate. Their support for a coalition government led by a prime minister in the legislature remains a deep unknown in Tunisian politics, he writes for The Globe and Mail:

For democrats, Tunisia offers the prospect of stability and progress. But western democracies will need to pay it serious attention. Democratic progress must be accompanied by economic progress. Tunisia requires western aid and development beyond the significant democratic assistance countries like Canada have already given.

Monica Marks, a Tunisia analyst from Oxford University, told PRI that Essebsi is winning Tunisians over by strumming on very familiar chords.

“He’s offering a kind of paternalistic, big man approach to politics,” she says. “[Essebsi is a] highly charismatic personal leader who says to the people, ‘I offer you safety and security, I’m offering you state prestige. If you invest trust in us, the old political elite, the statesmen, we are going to solve your problems.’”

In what some analysts interpret as a setback for political Islam, Ennahda didn’t field a candidate or indicated any preference, a signal that the party can live with Essebsi and allowing it to avoid backing a losing candidate, said Riccardo Fabiani, a senior analyst for North Africa at Eurasia Group.

tunisia ghannouchi“Reaching this historic moment today is a proof the democratic experience was a success in Tunisia” Rashid Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s leader, said while waiting to cast his ballot in Tunis. “Regardless of the results, the success of this election is in itself a victory.”

“People in the Arab world will watch Tunisia as a laboratory,” said political analyst Hammadi Rdissim. “We can do it, it’s not a myth, it can be a reality, and elections and democracy are possible in an Islamic country.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry congratulated the Tunisian people for their success in holding presidential elections, POMED adds.

“Tunisia’s democratic path will remain an inspiration to all those in the region and around the world who are working to build the foundation for an inclusive, peaceful, and prosperous future,” he said, adding that the U.S. will continue to provide Tunisia with economic and security assistance. A number of U.S. NGOs participated in observation missions, including the Carter Center, the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute - the latter two being core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Tunisia at a Crossroads: Between a Nascent Democracy and the Old Guard

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

12:30pm – ICC 270, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

Radwan A. Masmoudi  is the Founder and President of the Center of the Study of Islam & Democracy (CSID), a Washington-based non-profit think tank dedicated to promoting dialogue about democracy in the Muslim world. He is also the Editor of the Center’s quarterly publication, Muslim Democrat. In April 2012, he was elected as a member of the Steering Committee of the World Movement for Democracy.

Seating is limited. Lunch will be provided. RSVP

Tunisia’s Islamists ‘get sober lesson in governing’

ugttWith pundits making the Nidaa Tounes leader Beji Caid Essebsi favorite to win Tunisia’s presidential election this weekend, a number of candidates considered backing a consensus candidate to counter him, the BBC reports:

However, moderate Islamist opposition party Ennahdha subsequently decided not to back such a candidate, and instead urged its supporters to vote for a president who would “encourage democracy” and “realize the goals of the revolution”. If no candidate wins a majority in Sunday’s vote, the top two candidates will take part in a run-off scheduled for 31 December.

In exile, Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi had become one of the world’s best-known Islamist thinkers. He believed faith should infuse politics, and, like many Islamists, was harshly critical of Israel and U.S. foreign policy. But he embraced democracy — free elections, a free press, women’s rights, Mary Beth Sheridan writes for The Washington Post:  

But back in Tunisia, governing proved harder than Ghannouchi had ever imagined…. On reaching government, Ennahda sought to calm suspicions of an Islamist party. It formed a coalition with two smaller secularist parties. It pledged not to impose the headscarf or limit women’s rights. In its first year in power, beer sales surged to historic levels.

But its first big challenge wasn’t the secularists. With freedom of speech, radical Islamists turned up in mosques, preaching violence and intolerance. The government was caught off guard. 

tunisia ghannouchi“The reality is more complicated than any theory,” he said this month in an interview in his office…. “We ourselves were victims of prison and jail. It’s not easy for us to send others to jail,” said Ghannouchi (right), who did not assume a government position but led his party. 

On a theoretical level, “Ennahda is just about as moderate as you can possibly get while still being an Islamist party,” said Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of “Temptations of Power,” on Islamist movements.

To his detractors, Ghannouchi’s sins range from indulging in “double discourse”—saying one thing to Westerners and another to his flock—to peddling anti-Semitism and supporting terrorists, The Wall Street Journal’s Matthew Kaminski writes:  

His public record is long. “We must wage unceasing war against the Americans until they leave the land of Islam,” he said in a speech in Sudan, coming to Saddam Hussein ’s defense after Iraq invaded Kuwait. He tells me that those words “were fabricated,” but I hold in my hand a copy of an August 1990 article from Ila Filastin, an Islamist publication, that reported them. You can also find Ghannouchi statements going as far back in support of democracy and Islamic reformation….Perhaps now, after a couple of Tunisian elections impressive for their orderly execution, and on the eve of a presidential vote Sunday, this divisive figure of Arab politics can be judged just by what he has done. Mr. Ghannouchi, who is not on the presidential ballot, is the one person most responsible for fostering the introduction of an Arab democracy, however fragile, in this North African nation—the exception in a region torn apart by the violent upheavals of the past four years.

Many Ennahda supporters “thought God would be on the side of Ennahda in governing this country,” said Amine Ghali, program director of the Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center, which works on legal issues. “This is the demolition of a myth.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

tunisia_ugtt(1)In July 2013, Tunisia’s democracy almost went off the rails, Sheridan notes:

Alleged Islamic extremists pumped 11 bullets into Mohammed Brahmi, in the second assassination of a leftist politician in five months. Secular demonstrators poured into the streets. The powerful national labor union, the UGTT, declared a general strike.

Nearby in Egypt, the military had just overthrown the elected Islamist government. Tunisian demonstrators began to call for the same. “A coup d’etat can happen,” Ghannouchi remembers thinking.

But Tunisia had some advantages over Egypt. Its military is far weaker, its civil-society institutions are stronger. The labor union launched a “national dialogue” to bring the political parties together. After weeks of negotiations, a deal was reached. Tunisia’s politicians would approve one of the Arab world’s most liberal constitutions. And Tunisia’s first Islamist-led government would step down early, replaced by technocrats until the 2014 elections.

We’re often told that the clash in the Muslim world is between Islamism and liberalism, but this is misleading, Kaminski notes:

In reality, the fight is authoritarianism or violent chaos versus freer and peaceful politics. Syria, Libya and Iraq are living through the chaos, and the rest of the region is ruled by strongmen. Some come in the military uniform of Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi. In the fine suits of Bashar Assad or the thawbs of Saudi royals. Or in the clerical garbs of Tehran’s mullahs. Then there’s the something-in-between of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The lesson from Tunisia for the political future of the Arab lands: Don’t pay attention to the labels. What matters is the all-too-human capacity to adapt and see a better way to self-government.

How Tunisia will succeed: octogenarian president after youth uprising?

tunis smaliTwenty seven-year old Anis Smaali (left) is running a team of 5,000 election observers for Mourakiboun* - a group that monitored Tunisia’s parliamentary elections in October and on Sunday will be observing the first freely contested presidential election in the country’s history, the BBC’s Naveena Kottoor reports.

“These are the most important elections in the history of Tunisia,” he says. “After this we will have a real government with a five-year mandate. Tunisia is showing that a real and sustainable democracy is possible in the Arab world.”

It may seem unusual that an octogenarian politician who once said he would run for president if he was “still alive” would be tipped to lead a country whose youthful uprising touched off the Arab Spring, Heba Saleh writes for the FT:

But Beji Caid Sebsi is now seen as the frontrunner in Tunisia’s presidential election on November 23, just three days before his 88th birthday. His Nida Tunis party won October’s parliamentary elections with 39 per cent of the seats making it the largest bloc in the assembly. One of 25 candidates in the race, Mr Sebsi is for his supporters a credible secular face against the Islamists of Nahda, who emerged from decades of repression to capture a plurality of seats in the first election after the 2011 revolution and lead government for almost two years.

tunisia_ugtt(1)Also running is Moncef Marzouki, the interim president. A long-time opposition figure and veteran human rights activist, he may draw support from Islamists who see him as a bulwark against the return of the old regime.

Mr Sebsi’s party, a motley alliance of the old guard, liberals and trade unionists, was formed expressly to counter the Islamists, whom voters have punished for the country’s economic slowdown during the transition and for their perceived initial laxity towards violent religious extremists.

Tunisian rappers, comedians and journalists, fearful that next week’s presidential election could cement a return to power by partisans of the former dictatorship, are bracing themselves to defend the freedoms won since it was ousted in 2011, AFP reports. 

Most of the political spectrum in Tunisia is evolving toward more centrist and pragmatic politics. The reduction of the elections to an “Islamist/secularist” dichotomy is unhelpful and inaccurate. In fact, most secularist parties, including Nidaa Tounes, reject the label of “laïcité,” or secularism, as unhelpfully polarizing, says the leader of Ennahda, the country’s leading Islamist party.

tunisia ghannouchiThe solution to extremism is not less freedom, but more. The solution to terrorism is not less religion; it is freedom of religion and the cultivation of moderate, balanced religious thought, Rachid Ghannouchi (left) writes for The New York Times: 

Muslim democrats have an important role to play in combating the spread of extremist interpretations by upholding democratic values of freedom and pluralism….Tunisia still faces a daunting task. The Constitution, with its vision of a separation of powers and newly accountable institutions, has yet to be implemented. The “truth and dignity” commission has just begun its work toward providing justice to the victims of the Ben Ali dictatorship; this process is vital to healing the wounds of the past.

Tunisia will need the cooperation of all political parties to tackle much-needed reforms of economic subsidies and public administration, and of our banking system and investment laws. Consensus has got us this far, but Tunisia will need an inclusive, democratic approach if it is to solve the problems that are the legacy of dictatorship. 

“Nearly four years have passed since a man named Mohamed Bouazizi so despaired of the system that he set himself on fire in protest,” he notes, “With every decision we make, politicians in Tunisia must never forget what he died for. We need to protect freedom and dignity, and provide hope and opportunity.” RTWT

*A partner of the National Democratic Institute.

Big Step Forward: Tunisia’s Fragile Democratic Consolidation


Press conference over Tunisian parliamentary elections' resultsDuring Tunisia’s upcoming post-election government-formation debates, deep substantive divides about the nature of the state will once again emerge, says Dafna H. Rand, the Deputy Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). These deep political and social disagreements prolonged the twenty-four-month period of constitution-writing, from 2011 through the constitution’s adoption in early 2014, she writes for The National Interest:

First, Tunisians disagree about the nature of a secular state, with divergent views of how Islamic law should be reflected, if at all, in the court systems, personal status laws and educational institutions.

Second, Tunisians are debating how to address the urgent problem of joblessness and underemployment. Given the youth bulge, creating jobs is a national-security priority. The absence of jobs was a major trigger of the 2011 revolution. ….

The third societal tension has direct, immediate implications for U.S. national security. The new freedoms in the post–Ben Ali era, combined with the quick dissolution of a repressive police state without the development of a robust security-sector alternative, has contributed to the urgent problem of jihadism among Tunisian youth. Tunisians now represent one of the largest factions of foreign fighters from the Arab world fighting with the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusrah in Iraq and Syria.

“Proponents of Tunisia’s democratic transition in the United States and the international community can help. In particular, the United States, despite its particular discomfort and inexperience doing so, must elevate its diplomatic and programmatic tools focused on promoting productive civic and political debates and compromise, she adds:

ugttIn most cases, the Tunisian political parties, civil society, unions, religious leaders and the private sector will respond positively to international pressure and assistance. It is not interventionist for outside allies to support friends when they undertake the tough, long slog toward political reconciliation—a necessary step in consolidating democratic gains.

Dafna H. Rand is the Deputy Director of Studies at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and the inaugural Leon Panetta fellow. She formerly served on the staff of the National Security Council and in the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning.


Hamas has thoroughly studied the results of the Tunisian parliamentary elections, which resulted in its Muslim Brotherhood ally, Ennahda, falling to second place, Al-Monitor’s Adnan Abu Amer reports

Hamas’ follow-up on the Tunisian elections and Ennahda’s decline was aimed at trying to understand the mood of the Arab public opinion toward Islamists in general. In short, it sought to know whether Hamas could face a same scenario if Palestinian elections were held.

Bassem Naim, head of Hamas’ international relations in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “The situations of Hamas and Ennahda are not equivalent, as each has special situations that do not apply to the other. While Ennahda’s result and decline were affected by civil and administrative criteria, Hamas’ situation is linked to the conflict with the occupier [Israel] and this political aspect dominates its ruling experience.” RTWT

Tunisia after the Elections: Can a Viable Coalition be Formed?

After a successful legislative election on October 26, Tunisia faces another important challenge. Can an effective governing coalition be formed that includes the country’s divided secular and Islamist parties? And what role will the country’s new civic groups play?  


Marina Ottaway

Senior Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center 

Robert Worth

Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center, and journalist, New York Times


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