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.

As Tunisia takes on militants, labor helped forge political settlement

tunisia_ugtt(1)The first to cast off a dictator and herald the Arab Spring uprisings, Tunisia has been dealing with political unrest and terrorism from those who hoped to establish a Muslim theocracy, Sarah Lynch writes for USA Today:

Yet this country seems intent on not letting go of the fledgling democracy that came out of its Jasmine Revolution, to date perhaps the most successful of the Arab Spring. The protest movement that began with a simple act — a desperate fruit vendor set himself on fire in December 2010 — and gave rise to uprisings across the country that led to the ouster of longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.

The country has developed significant counterterrorism forces that have been given the means to fight back, say analysts. And the government is infiltrating the once-sacrosanct haven of the mosque to root out imams accused of inciting violence….. By far most here believe the greatest challenge now to a peaceful future is the defeat of militant ideology.

“I would describe the overall sweep as a stunning success for the first phase of the crackdown,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

But without the muscular involvement of a powerful labor union, it is unlikely that Tunisia’s remarkable political settlement would have come about, says Carnegie Endowment analyst Sarah Chayes:

Explanations in the West for this Tunisian exception have emphasized the country’s penchant for consensus in general, and the conciliatory nature of the Islamist party in particular. “The Ennahda Movement made many concessions and agreed to relinquish control of the government in order to preserve genuine consensus,” reads the approving account of Ghannouchi’s remarks at a roundtable held by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in February.1

“And yet, without the muscular involvement of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) —perhaps the only organization whose power and legitimacy rival the Islamists’—it is unlikely that Tunisia’s remarkable political settlement would have come about,” Chayes contends.

“The UGTT and other key institutions, the talent and tenacity of a few individuals, and several fortuitous events combined to drive the process. It was this convergence that compelled inexperienced and sometimes bitter and refractory politicians to bridge the divides.”

Tunisia has had an easier transition to democracy because it has assets other countries lack, analysts suggest.

The population is wealthier and more educated than other countries in the region and women are more emancipated, said Michele Dunne, a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

And while the military backed the revolution, it made space for civilian rule and did not involve itself in politics — vastly different from Egypt where the military governed after Hosni Mubarak’s fall and then forced then-President Mohamed Morsi out of power last summer.

“Tunisia now has set the stage for greater political stability,” said Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Westerners, while acknowledging the persistence and ultimate flexibility of Tunisian political actors in reaching consensus, should not draw the wrong lesson from this remarkable story, says Carnegie’s Chayes:

As they think about how Tunisia’s experience might usefully be applied to other contexts, they should be sure to give appropriate weight to the mediating role of powerful and legitimate external institutions. After all, as LTDH Vice President Ali Ziddini puts it, “just as our revolution was a model, we want our National Dialogue to be a model for other countries.”


World Bank study details crony-capitalism of former Tunisian leaders

tunis-flagTunisia’s former regime used existing regulations and created new ones to benefit family members and those close to the regime. Regulations were manipulated to such an extent that by the end of 2010 this group of privileged insiders was capturing over 21 percent of all private sector profits in the country, according to a new study from researchers at the World Bank Group.

All in the Family, State Capture in Tunisia was published today as a World Bank Policy Research Working Paper:

The authors compiled a unique data set of 220 Ben Ali connected firms, as identified by the confiscation commission, created shortly after the 2011 uprising, to identify and confiscate assets belonging to the inner clan of former President Ben Ali:

The analysis from the confiscation commission data demonstrates that the firms studied were closely connected to the family of the former president. The analysis of firm level data with the decrees signed by the former president over a 17 year period shows that the legislation often served to carve out and protect clan interests from competition. The evidence found 25 decrees issued during the period introducing new authorization requirements in 45 different sectors and new foreign direct investment (FDI) restrictions in 28 sectors. This resulted in over one fifth of all private sector profits accruing to connected firms.

This study provides compelling confirmation that the former regime benefited from crony-capitalism,” said Bob Rijkers, PhD, researcher at the World Bank Research Department and the study’s lead author. “We show that interventionist industrial policy became captured by the family of the president and de facto became a smokescreen for extraction of rents. In fact the evidence suggests that the State allowed capture of a significant part of the private sector to be appropriated for the regime’s own rent-seeking by ‘ring-fencing’ family-connected companies from regulations or giving special advantages to those firms.  More perniciously, we also found evidence that the regulations themselves were in fact being adjusted in function of personal interests and corruption.”

The study’s authors explain that while the regime has left, the regulatory structure it created remains largely unchanged.

The problem of crony-capitalism is not just about Ben Ali and his clan–rather it remains one of the key development challenges facing Tunisia today,” says Antonio Nucifora, PhD, World Bank Lead Economist for  the Middle East and North Africa region. Three years after the revolution the economic system which existed under Ben Ali has not been changed significantly.  With the revolution Tunisians have got free of ex-President Ben Ali and the worst of corruption, but the economic policies remain largely intact and prone to abuse. This policy infrastructure inherited from the Ben Ali era perpetuates social exclusion and invites corruption.”


Jebali quits Ennahda leadership, as experts ask U.S. to aid Tunisia’s transition

tunis-flagTunisia‘s former prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, has reportedly resigned as the secretary-general of the country’s ruling Ennahda party:

Jebali said he had tendered his resignation to the Islamist movement’s leaders, citing both “objective and subjective” reasons. He said there would be “no use or importance” in stating his reasons for the decision, while stressing his respect for Ennahda’s “traditions and rules.”

“I believe my decision could be my contribution to supporting a new class of leadership with a generation of qualified members, which the movement boasts at all levels,” Jebali added…..Jebali served as the Arab Spring country’s premier from December 2011 to March 2013, when he resigned following the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid.

A diverse group of 65 former diplomats, Middle East experts, and former members of Congress today sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry urging him to follow through on U.S. commitments to Tunisia by increasing support for its economic, political, and security needs:

The letter was signed by four former U.S. Ambassadors to Tunisia and eight former members of Congress including former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Senator Joe Lieberman, and former House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman. Other signatories include former Director of National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair, former Director of Policy Planning at the State Department Anne-Marie Slaughter, and former World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz.

“This letter demonstrates a strong consensus among a wide variety of policy voices who believe the U.S. government must do more to support Tunisia’s democratic transition,” said Stephen McInerney, Executive Director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, “as well as a strong consensus on several specific steps that Washington should take to do so.”  


The letter notes the historic political progress Tunisia has made since 2011 and the potential positive impact that a successful democratic transition in Tunisia could have on the entire region, while also noting the significant challenges the country still faces. It also outlines seven specific policy recommendations for the Obama administration, including steps the U.S. can take to help bolster private sector investment, support institutional reform of the security and judicial sectors, and strengthen the U.S.-Tunisia relationship through increased exchange and partnership programs and a strengthened framework for bilateral trade.  

Secretary Kerry will have the opportunity to discuss these recommendations during the launch of a Strategic Dialogue with Tunisian Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa during his visit to Washington April 2-4.

Currently, the United States has allocated $30 million in bilateral economic aid for Tunisia in the FY15 budget, while continuing to depend on funds from multi-country accounts to address the shortfall in funding. An increased and sustained investment can demonstrate a more serious commitment to the country and provide the support needed to ensure the success of the Arab world’s first genuine democratic transition.

POMED is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy.

For a PDF of the letter, click here.

Tunisia and Egypt’s diverging transitions show pitfalls and potential for Arab democracy

Tunisia and Egypt, neighbors whose twin revolts ignited the Arab Spring, are a dual lesson in the pitfalls and potentials for democracy across the region, The New York Times reports:

On the third anniversary of the flight of the former strongman, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s constituent assembly was poised on Tuesday to approve a new constitution that is one of the most liberal in the Arab world. A carefully worded blend that has won the approval of both the governing Islamist party and its secular opposition, the new charter presents the region with a rare model of reconciliation over the vexing question of Islam’s role in public life.

With the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muhammed. Morsi and the subsequent violent crackdown, what began as a revolution in became another chapter in “the very old and always violent story” of “the rivalry between the security state and the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Zaid al-Ali, a legal expert in Cairo tracking both charters for the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

“In Tunisia, we have turned the page completely, and you really feel that a revolution has taken place,” he said. “In Egypt, that is debatable.”

“‘Train wreck’ might be a charitable way to describe where Egypt is right now,” said Nathan J. Brown, an expert on Arab legal systems at George Washington University. In Tunisia, he said, “everybody keeps dancing on the edge of a cliff, but they never fall off,” he told the Times:

The difference, scholars said, lies in the shape of the shards left after each country’s revolt. Tunisia’s brutal security police virtually collapsed during its revolt, while its small, professionalized military historically had no interest in political power. In civilian politics, its Islamist and secular factions were relatively evenly matched, with the Islamists winning only a plurality in Tunisia’s first free vote. Each side needed the other to govern.

The new text says the defence minister is to be appointed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, for the first two presidential terms following the constitution taking effect. It no longer allows military courts to try civilians, except in cases where they are charged with direct attacks on the army or its property.