Tunisia’s race against time

TUNISIA UGTTThe birthplace of the Arab Spring is sometimes described as the only democratic nation in the Middle East and North Africa. In order to retain this distinction and uphold its new constitution, however, a legitimate voting process needs to be held this year, Christine Petré writes for Middle East Eye:

After a long debate between Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party over procedural issues (it is lobbying to hold legislative elections first), and the opposition’s preference (to hold the presidential vote first), the National Constituent Assembly has finally agreed: parliamentary elections will be held on October 26 this year, and the vote for a president on November 23, leaving time for a second round of voting, if need be, before the year ends.

So far, so good, but then began a hectic period for the country’s Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE) in its fight against the clock. In the period of the month leading up to 22 July, new voters needed to register to vote. In a push to increase the number of registrations the ISIE has now announced that a second registration period will be held from August 5 to August 26. People who voted in the last elections in 2011 did not need to re-register, except for those among them allowed to vote at the last minute, principally to help boost official figures of the final turnout.

”Since the ousting of Tunisia’s President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, this small Mediterranean country has driven a bumpy road towards democratic stability, facing a number of security threats from radical religious fractions,” Petré notes. ”How the country is able to handle its next elections could prove an important indicator of how democratic its future might be.” RTWT

Tunisia’s dilemma in anti-jihadist campaign

Tunisia has hit back at a deadly jihadist attack on troops by closing mosques and media outlets seen as sympathetic to extremists, raising fears of a return to the censorship of the old regime, Agence France Presse reports:

In the wake of a July 16 attack which left 15 soldiers dead in Mount Chaambi near the Algerian border, the authorities have laid down a “red line” against criticism of the army and police. The government announced the immediate closure of mosques which had fallen out of the control of the religious affairs ministry. It has also decided to shut down unlicensed media outlets which had “turned into platforms for takfiris and jihad,” referring to apostasy charges against fellow Muslims.

With a growing challenge from jihadists, long repressed under Ben Ali, the government is facing a double challenge. The authorities are working to restore the “prestige” and “authority” of a state weakened by the 2011 revolution. They also aim to curb the Islamist rhetoric which has found an outlet in a media landscape that has exploded over the past three years, with many broadcasters operating unlicenced.

Rights groups are warning against curbs on liberties that were hard-won after years of Ben Ali’s dictatorship, urging a balance between anti-terror measures and freedom of information.

“The country is going through a very difficult time and politicians are under pressure,” said Rachida Ennaifer of Tunisia’s audiovisual regulatory body HAICA.

“But the fight against terrorism should not be arbitrary or populist. If we want a state of law, we must respect the law,” she told AFP, pointing to the dilemma faced by authorities. RTWT

Tunisia’s political prospects

Although Tunisia’s democratic transition has been rocky, it presents the most promising scenario among the Arab Awakening countries. Looking ahead, parliamentary elections scheduled for later this year are important in their own right, but are also viewed as a litmus test for the future of inclusive politics. Please join a conversation with Hariri Center Nonresident Fellow Duncan Pickard, who will speak on the recently-passed elections law, voting procedures, and potential political alliances, and Fatima Hadji of the National Endowment for Democracy who will take a bird’s-eye view of the process and reflect on how external actors might help the transition.  

A discussion with Duncan Pickard, Nonresident Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council and Fatima Hadji, Program Officer for the Maghreb, National Endowment for Democracy.

Moderated by Karim Mezran, Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council.

DATE: Wednesday, July 30, 2014. TIME: 10:30 a.m. -12:00 p.m. LOCATION: Atlantic Council 1030 15th St NW, 12th floor, Washington, DC 20005.

Tunisia: troubled transition ‘a lesson in modesty’ for West

TUNISIA UGTTWhile much of the world is focused on the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Libya, a slow and steady counter revolution is taking place in Tunisia, reports suggest.  

Four Tunisian soldiers were killed in a landmine blast yesterday, Reuters reports, in the latest sign of growing jihadist militancy.

Despite growing concern over the political resurgence of former regime elements, prime minister Ali Laarayedh believes the majority Islamist party, Ennahda, will be a major force in the forthcoming elections.

The Ennahda Movement and other parties have a wide and stable electoral base, but the fear today comes from the possibility of Tunisians staying away from the elections, and this is a danger for us all,” he said, noting that estimates suggest that some 40 percent of voters are still undecided.

Outdated ancien-régime thinking

At a meeting of Ennahda’s governing council last month, party leader Rached Ghannouchi expressed his determination  to prevent the party from fielding a candidate in the presidential election, the Guardian reports:

He advocates backing an “independent”. “People’s power is more important than the central power, which is why the parliamentary election is more important than the presidential election,” he says. “The revolution transferred power from just one person to a whole people, and the parties that focus their attention on the presidency are still governed by outdated ancien-régime thinking.”

However, Hamadi Jebali, who headed the first government after Ennahda’s victory in October 2011 and is the party’s general secretary, still harbours ambitions and has not yet made his plans clear. The internal differences will soon be settled. The party leadership may go even further and give up any claim on government or the job of prime minister. For Ghannouchi and his supporters, this is definitely on the agenda.

tunis-flag“It’s a possibility,” says Ali Larayedh, who took over from Jebali as prime minister and is the deputy general secretary. “It’s not an easy decision for a party with an ideological basis, but exercising power in a nascent democracy inevitably requires pragmatism and compromise. What happened in Egypt has strengthened this tendency towards compromise.”

The major parties must reach a consensus on reform if they are to save the country’s troubled transition, say analysts.

“Ultimately, the economic, political and social transformation of Tunisia will require a myriad of parties working together to steer the country forward,” one observer suggests. “With elections on the horizon, the prospect of financial reform and the security situation calming, there is hope for its people that permanent change is coming.”  

Other observers point to a growing climate of intolerance.

Buffeted by political tumult, the country’s tiny Jewish community feels besieged, the New York Times reports.

“Amel Karboul, the tourism minister, is one of the leaders defending her country’s inclusiveness,” notes one observer. “The fact that she was subjected to a no-confidence vote in parliamentary debate was regrettable. The fact that she prevailed, with the prime minister’s support, was encouraging — a rare positive signal in a troubled region.” 

Remarkable achievements

If the EU were to get a grade on its actions and policies on each country affected by the Arab Spring, it would probably score a “pass” on Tunisia, writes Carnegie Europe analyst Marc Pierini:

But that would be more by default than by design, since it was the Tunisians themselves who pulled off a success, rather than the EU giving them decisive support. Even though Tunisian citizens today are impatient, dissatisfied, and worried about their future, the achievements to date of their country’s three-and-a-half-year transition are remarkable….

tunisia_ugtt(1)Throughout Tunisia’s transition process, the strength of civil society was remarkable. Trade unions (left), judges and prosecutors, and women’s organizations were the decisive engines that pushed political parties to compromise and condemn violence. Ultimately, these groups obliged Ennahda to leave the government in January 2014. A collective preference for dialogue and compromise was imposed on political parties. This tendency was reinforced after the assassinations of two opposition politicians in 2013. The sorry example of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which came to power after that country’s 2011 revolution before itself being overthrown within a year, may also have enticed Tunisia’s political actors to exercise moderation.

Has Tunisia’s transition progressed irrespective of the EU being involved? Yes and no, Pierini adds:

In addition to the many visits by the EU special representative for the Southern Mediterranean, Bernardino León, and the EU special representative for human rights, Stavros Lambrinidis, the EU did what it promised to do: the European Commission, the union’s executive, doubled its financial support to Tunisia between 2011 and 2013 from an annual average of €80 million ($109 million) to some €150–160 million ($204–218 million). In addition, EU support for civil society projects, which were officially welcome but in practice always blocked under the regime of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, are now operational.

The three-year-old transition in Tunisia is a lesson in modesty for the EU and other Western partners, he adds:

The revolution was not inspired, let alone triggered, from outside; it came out of a citizens’ uprising. Outsiders simply voiced their political support, and the EU tried to steer its increased funding to the most meaningful projects under the circumstances.

Whether the EU can do more in the future will not be a decision for EU institutions to make. Rather, it will essentially be up to Tunisian citizens and political stakeholders to indicate where they need most EU support and engagement.

The EU would do well to share with Tunisia—not teach—more of its experience in inclusive governance, civil society development, media freedoms, and transitional justice.


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.