In the Western world, Tunisia is unanimously seen as the most remarkable example of a successful Arab political transition. Yet, while the country has made many achievements in the last four years, the challenges underlying the January 2011 revolution are still largely unresolved. And the March 18, 2015, terrorist attack on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, for which the self-described Islamic State claimed responsibility, has triggered new anxieties.
Tunisia’s government has a rocky road ahead. Along the way, the country can look to the West—in particular, to the EU—for support. But for European assistance to be effective, the EU must learn from past mistakes and revamp its cooperation.
A Number of Remarkable Achievements
For someone who lived, as I did, for four years in Tunis under the pre-2011 dictatorial regime, there is a distinct sense of freedom in the air in the Tunisian capital. Conversations are no longer hushed, and even the traffic in the streets seems to have gone wild. Yet, more than four years after its revolution, Tunisia is still reeling between pride and anger, between optimism and frustration. The March 18 terrorist attack added a sense of deep frustration and sorrow.
The revolution’s biggest achievement is free speech. This is now internationally recognized, including by the NGO Freedom House, which gave Tunisia its highest ranking of “free” in 2015. Tunisian stakeholders—political parties, civil society activists, academics, journalists, and citizens—have an opinion on just about every subject. There is an extraordinary abundance of debate, to the point that one wonders what decision mechanisms are in place for the many unresolved issues.
The Tunisian revolution has also produced major institutional achievements in a relatively short time: a constituent assembly, a new constitution, a presidential and a legislative election, and the basis for the creation of a constitutional court and high judicial council. Above all, the transition process itself gave all those concerned a voice. In absolute terms and in comparison with the rest of the Arab world, Tunisians are definitely entitled to be proud.
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Yet, none of the frustrations that triggered the revolution—job creation, in particular—has been eased. Tourism is down, and so is foreign direct investment. More importantly, the authority of the state has been diminished, and many still see the revolutionary atmosphere of demonstrations, critical statements, and outright obstructionism as a way to manage the country. As one analyst wrote: “Worn out from a roller coaster ride of optimism and disappointment, many [Tunisians] are distrustful of those in power and the promises they make.”
Democracy Yields an Improbable Coalition
The 2014 legislative and presidential elections were Tunisia’s first democratic ballots since the country’s independence in 1956. Contrary to many observers’ expectations, President Beji Caid Essebsi formed a coalition of the two political parties that won the most seats in the Assembly of the Representatives of the People: Nidaa Tounes (Call for Tunisia), the main secular party; and Ennahdha, the Islamist party that was in power from 2011 to 2013. These parties won 86 and 69 seats respectively out of 217.
By forming a coalition, the two parties have entered into a mutual assurance pact, mostly against the mainstream view of their respective voters. Nidaa Tounes acquired the guarantee of legislative stability and now hopes to turn its main partner into an ally for reforms. For its part, Ennahdha kept its status of a governing party (albeit at the price of a modest stake in the government led by the independent Prime Minister Habib Essid) and showed a distinct “ability to advance via dialogue and compromise,” in the words of one researcher. This improbable coalition, which includes four parties in total, received the strong approval of 166 out of 217 parliamentarians on February 5, 2015, reflecting the arithmetic of the legislative election.
However, Nidaa Tounes and Ennahdha are in a delicate situation, as the creation of the new government led to an uproar from members of both parties—so-called rejectionists—who oppose the coalition. Essebsi, also the leader of Nidaa Tounes, committed to an alliance that, during the election campaign, he had promised never to enter. Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahdha’s president, drew the ire of his party’s hawkish wing by teaming up with elements of the former regime.
The coalition deal triggered resignations in Ennahdha, while Nidaa Tounes saw its leadership enter both Carthage Palace, to take up the presidency and advisory positions, and the government, where the party has a number of cabinet posts, including foreign minister. According to the Arab Reform Initiative, a group of think tanks, the test will be in the evolution of the two parties’ positions on key issues: “Real partnership remains contingent on healing the wounds of the ‘rejectionist front’ within both Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda.”
This being said, from an outsider’s standpoint, there are positive elements in the coalition, even though many of those who voted for the two main parties do not see it that way.
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Most notably, Tunisia’s body politic is showing willingness to compromise for the sake of moving the democratic process forward. Both Nidaa Tounes and Ennahdha have made sacrifices in forging the coalition and—by accepting the reality of the election results—shown a sense of responsibility. It remains to be seen whether the parties will make the pact work efficiently, or whether they will end up in political paralysis due to fundamental disagreements.
In addition, Tunisia is now completing its democratic learning curve. Nidaa Tounes and Ennahdha emerged with 40 percent and 32 percent respectively of the seats in the parliament. This is a far cry from the atomized votes in the constituent assembly of 2011, when about 100 parties ran and 19 won at least one seat. Tunisia’s political forces have regrouped around two major poles, a secularist-liberal one and an Islamic-conservative one, the second retreating from 89 seats in 2011 to 69 now. The respective shares of the two big players are similar to those observed in European countries, and both Tunisian parties have chosen to cooperate for the sake of stability. This in itself is a sign of political maturity, but the main hurdles lie farther down the road.
A Polarized Society
Difficulties abound in Tunisia’s politics. Managing diversity, rival agendas, and different societal projects is a tall order. As the election results clearly illustrate, the country is split between two diverging concepts of society: a liberal, Western-oriented view and an Islamic-conservative approach.
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The differences run deeper than meets the eye. In many walks of life, there are radically opposed views on everyday issues. Should kids in a Koranic kindergarten be allowed to draw human beings, or should they be made to recite the Koran? Should the science curriculum at universities embrace the theory of evolution, or should it endorse creationism? Should the principles of Islamic finance be adopted nationwide and the associated legal framework adapted accordingly? And what is the place of women in society—are all women equal to men, or only mothers?
Many defining principles of Tunisian society remain the subject of wide divergences, and it is unclear who is going to manage such huge gaps. Some of these issues will come to the fore during the municipal elections foreseen for 2016, while others are more directly linked to governmental choices.
The balance that Tunisia finds for itself will also determine its place in the globalized world—be it that of a fully integrated partner or that of a small country at the periphery of economic and scientific modernity. The road is narrow, and the divergences are huge, but Tunisia stands no chance of finding a meaningful role in the wider world if it cannot craft a modern societal model.
A Difficult Road for Political Parties
In Tunisia, the two main coalition parties are essentially defined by their social identities, with Nidaa Tounes representing the liberal elites and secular middle class, and Ennahdha the religious conservatives. Aside from the clash in their societal aims and the rather clear-cut geographical divide that they embody, the parties are now also confronted with the need to compromise on a number of key priorities for the country. The new government must put the final touches to Tunisia’s rule of law architecture (composed of the constitution, constitutional court, and high judicial council), and it must pass and implement a large number of laws and regulations—not least, a new investment code. All stakeholders—government, parliament, civil society, trade unions, academics, and citizens—now have to find ways and means to coexist and get the country back to work.
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But the main challenge is the absolute need to ensure security. Tunisia faces several threats: 3,000 Tunisian jihadists are involved in Syria and Iraq; extremists are creating instability near the Algerian border; Salafist groups are operating on Tunisian territory; and the Libyan state is in danger of disintegrating with the rise of groups affiliated with the Islamic State. Now, the Bardo Museum terrorist attack has raised fears further. In addition, most interlocutors refer to a clear connection between terrorist groups operating in Libya, human traffickers, and smugglers moving across Tunisia’s borders. Smuggling seems to irrigate the entire economy of Tunisia’s south.
The government’s handling of these security threats and of security sector reform will constitute a major test, given the histories of the two main coalition partners. Tackling Tunisia’s multifold security challenge is fundamental for a country whose economy is highly dependent on tourism and foreign direct investment.
Nidaa Tounes is suspected by other parties of trying to engineer a return to the authoritarian state that was defeated by the revolution. And indeed, the attack on the Bardo Museum was met with a strong response. On the day of the massacre, the president declared: “I want the Tunisian people to understand that we are in a war against terrorism and that these savage minorities do not frighten us. We will fight them without mercy to our last breath.”
But the party must strike a fine balance in its approach to security issues. It has to navigate between the necessity to reform and improve the security sector, the temptation of some to return to a police state, and the eminently political choice to govern with the Islamists. Passing security sector reforms that are efficient as well as respectful of fundamental liberties will be a test of prime importance for Nidaa Tounes, which has inherited many elements from the former regime.
Ensuring security is no less of a challenge for Ennahdha, given the party’s relationship with Salafist movements when it was in power in 2011–2013 and its political narrative. Because of the evolution in Tunisia’s political landscape, the turbulent regional situation, and the March 18 attack, Ennahdha’s leadership now faces the option of dissociating itself more clearly from Islamic terrorism and of endorsing the government’s forthcoming security sector reforms.
In the recent past, Ennahdha’s stance on these issues was not entirely clear. Ghannouchi said that the September 12, 2012, assault by protesters on the U.S. embassy in Tunis was “un-Islamic” and that his party rejected any form of terrorism. Ennahdha long condemned only rogue elements in Salafist groups, not the groups’ ideology. But lately, the party has started dealing with these movements in a more decisive way, with leaders saying that “there is no dialogue with those who threaten the state and society” and that “Tunisia is not a land of jihad.”
The extent to which Ennahdha’s leadership will maintain this tougher line on the issue of violent extremism will be critical for the country’s credibility on the international scene, and therefore for its economic success. It will also be critical for the party itself, as a governing party in the only Arab country that has so far managed a democratic transition. It seems that Ghannouchi has decided to position himself clearly on the side of democracy and human rights but still faces dissenting voices within his party.
Ennahdha reiterated its resolve on jihadist movements in the wake of the Bardo Museum attack, when Ghannouchi declared that “there is no place for Daesh [the Islamic State] in Tunisia. . . . Tunisia’s long-established state and our freedoms will prevent extremists from seizing territory and establishing themselves here.” On the country’s eastern neighbor, he said: “If the situation in Libya isn’t resolved, Tunisia will remain under attack. . . . Young Tunisian men go to train in camps in Libya. They get arms and then sneak back across borders we can’t control.”
Ghannouchi also responded to accusations that Ennahdha was too soft on Islamists: “When we were in government [previously], we classified Ansar al-Sharia [a radical Islamic movement] as a terrorist group and declared war on them.” And he explained his party’s specific role: “Secular parties also have no influence in the mosques, so we contained the threat of radical groups there and forced them into hiding.” Many political observers hope to see an even clearer stance from Ennahdha on antiterrorism measures.
Managing Diversity and Building Consensus
Tunisia, because of its revolutionary achievements, may succeed in managing diversity and achieving consensus despite rejectionist tendencies within the two main parties. The Tunisian revolution was characterized by the key role played by nongovernmental stakeholders: trade unions, civil society organizations, business associations, and academics. Because these actors engineered the transition to democracy and forced politicians to change course, they earned huge credentials and retain significant political legitimacy. These stakeholders now have to decide how they will exercise—individually and collectively—their newly acquired responsibility and how they will make use of the aura they have gained during the past four years.
The liberal segment of Tunisian civil society is still a force to be reckoned with, and it has the necessary credibility to take on a responsible role in Tunisia’s political life. Under the dictatorship, these actors were suppressed and played no structured part in the management of the country. Now, political parties have little choice other than to listen to civil society. However, for this alchemy to work in the coming months, there are two prerequisites.
First, civil society organizations must now evolve, because they have achieved their historical objectives of removing the police state and of making democratic principles prevail. Tunisian civil society should change its role and find a new niche for itself, namely to help steer a diverse country and its delicate political coalition in a constructive direction.
Second, and more generally, a permanent consensus-building mechanism has now become crucial for the country as a whole. This mechanism should take the form of a forum in which all stakeholders can exercise the collective responsibility that will fall on them once the main phase of the revolution has been completed with multiple elections and a new rule of law architecture. This forum should be inclusive and led by a mutually accepted personality.
The way in which these stakeholders organize themselves—with the support of international partners—will be a determining factor in the outcome of the postelection phase of Tunisia’s transition process.
When it comes to managing diversity and building consensus, all Tunisian stakeholders would find valuable lessons in the experience of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), the governing party since 2002. After ten years of success, the AKP is now embroiled in considerable domestic difficulties because it ignores the aspirations of the roughly 50 percent of citizens who did not vote for it in the last two general elections.
Can the EU Help?
Moving forward, Tunisia can count on the support of the Western community in a wide range of fields, from the security sector to business development to civil society and culture. The EU and the United States have been especially keen to offer all they can to facilitate the country’s transition.
The EU’s problem with Tunisia is not a financial one—cooperation funds have more than doubled since the beginning of the revolution, and the union can further expand the scope of programs applied to Tunisia—but one of methodology. The EU needs to adapt its methodology in three ways.
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First, the Europeans must draw lessons from the mistakes of the past. The days of the EU making its assistance look good on stage but then letting the government in Tunis block or distort EU support backstage are over. The union should not allow Tunis to formally endorse civil society projects only for them to be subsequently neutralized. Nor should it consent to a supposed justice sector reform project being confined to the procurement of vehicles and computers—as happened to a program adopted in December 2005. Tunisia’s postrevolution civil society will no longer let the government fake its cooperation with the EU.
Second, cooperation between the EU and its member states, on the one hand, and Tunisia, on the other, should cover all relevant sectors—not least security, which was not previously a part of bilateral cooperation. Further areas on which the two sides could work together range from military issues to border and migration management, from education and social affairs to critical societal choices, and from youth employment to business partnerships.
Third, the EU’s cooperation methodology should be inclusive. Given the dynamics and complexities of Tunisian society, it would be a grave mistake if EU policy planners confined their cooperation to government circles only. All stakeholders should be involved in an inclusive and transparent manner, which is also in the interest of Tunisia’s government and parliament as they try hard to decide on critical reforms.
Tunisia has made significant strides since 2011 in its journey toward democracy but still faces considerable challenges ahead. The EU, itself a political system based on differences, compromise, and consensus, can be of great help in the current phase of the Tunisian revolution. For this, the union needs a measure of imagination and courage beyond the beaten path of past cooperation programs.