Tunisia’s new government excludes Islamists

tunis-flagTunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid announced a new minority government Friday that excludes most of the major players on the political scene, including Islamist and leftist parties, AP reports:

The big winner in last year’s elections was the nationalist Nida Tunis party, but with only 86 of the 217 seats, it had promised to form a broad governing coalition to see the country out of its economic crisis. However, the 24 new ministers presented Friday appeared to come from only two parties that may not have enough seats to survive a no-confidence vote.

The cabinet includes 10 ministers from Nida Tunis, including the foreign minister, and three from the Free Patriotic Union Party, which holds 16 seats. Together the two parties will have less than half of the seats in parliament, which means they may have difficulty implementing the necessary reforms to tackle Tunisia’s titanic economic problems like high inflation and unemployment.

The Islamist party Ennahda, with the second largest number of seats in the assembly, had sought a unity government with Nidaa Tounes to improve stability with the new government set to crack down on Islamist militants and tackle economic reforms, Reuters adds:

Nidaa Tounes leaders had not openly opposed a unity administration. But Nidaa Tounes hardliners were against any alliance with Ennahda, who they blame for turmoil during the first Islamist-led government after the 2011 uprising. Ennahda party leaders were consulting on Friday on whether to accept the new government.

The Ministry of Tourism, a key sector that has struggled since the 2011 revolt that ousted long-time strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was given to a party headed by the owner of one of Tunis’s two major football clubs, AFP adds:

The Free Patriotic Union of wealthy businessman Slim Riahi, who owns Club Africain, was also given the ministry of sports and youth. Riahi’s party came third in the polls

A major external challenge facing Ennhada is its lack of governing experience, says analyst Monica Marks. Senior party members understand the need to reform the nation’s bureaucratic culture but have not yet identified how to implement such a change, she told the Project for Middle East Democracy:

The rise of Salafism within the country presents another challenge. This movement, which has violent elements, encompassed many types of Salafists. Ennhada initially struggled to respond to this challenge before settling upon increasing funding for religious education and socio-economic programs to address this situation.  Marks also pointed out internal challenges that have threatened the cohesiveness of the party, such as whether or not to form a coalition government with Nidaa Tunis officials and personnel from the Ben Ali  regime.

Lessons learned on Tunisia’s ‘perilous path to freedom’

tunis-flagTunisia’s experience holds many lessons for other countries undergoing a democratic transition, says Rached Ghannouchi, the founder and president of the Ennahda Party.

Tunisia’s success was built on consensus, he writes for The Wall Street Journal:

This has prevented fragile democratic institutions from collapsing due to political conflict. Tunisia’s commitment to inclusion also allowed us to navigate questions of transitional justice and begin addressing decades of inequality and an economy plagued by inherited structural problems. There can be no majority or minority when building the foundations of democracy.

The decision not to nominate an Ennahda presidential candidate reflected our willingness to make sacrifices to prevent polarization. Domination by any one political faction risks a return to the authoritarianism under which Tunisians suffered for three decades.

The labor unions of the UGTT were the most significant of the civil society groups that played a vital role in advancing and defending the transition, says Salah Eddin al Jourshi, President of the Al Jaheth Cultural Forum.

“There are dangers that threaten the process of building a healthy civil society from parties who have a completely opposite understanding of civil society in its modern meaning,” he told the Arab Reform Initiative’s Bassma Kodmani and Salam Kawabiki:

This new force, and we use the term “force” here because civil society played an important role when the parties were weak and fought each other, intervened to limit the ramifications of these disputes, or at least to direct them to a specific course of action. ….Civil society played a major role in preparing for the holding of elections that were important in the history of Tunisia. Through this process, some civil society leaders joined the executive authority and for three years now, are government leaders or in state institutions. Many of them were nurtured in civil society and managed associations and human rights organisations. They were behind the first commission that was established. If there had been a similar commission in Egypt, events would not have unfolded as they have. In order for the commission to protect the revolution and democratic transition, the head and members were from civil society.

Europe can play a vital role in sustaining Tunisia’s progress and promoting an alternative, Ghannouchi adds:

Increased foreign direct investment and trade can create high-skilled jobs that provide social mobility, strengthen our society and limit the appeal of extremist groups. Simultaneously, it will offer European companies with operations in Tunisia a high-quality gateway to Africa. The combination of increased regional security and business growth can only be a positive for Tunisia and Europe. …..But Tunisia’s democratic transition remains unfinished and cannot be taken for granted. Tunisia’s friends in Europe can help ensure our continued progress, a contribution that will benefit not just Tunisia but the rest of the region and beyond.


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.