Is International Mediation the Way Out of Tunisia’s Political Conflict?

Tunisia is in the midst of the most intractable political conflict since the 2011 revolution. The debate pits the ruling Islamic party, Ennahda, against a coalition of secular forces led by Nidaa Tunis, an opposition party founded in 2012. Leaders from these and other parties have been negotiating the future of the political transition over the past several months: namely, the passage of the draft constitution, the resignation of the current government, and the timing of presidential and parliamentary elections. Ennahda has agreed to resign from government when other guarantees about the future of elections and the constitution are agreed to. But the currently stalled process hinges on the parties’ inability to reach consensus on a prime minister after Ennahda leaves office. Negotiators remain mired in a web of interrelated issues. The actors involved cannot build the momentum toward agreement due mutual distrust and a zero-sum approach toward negotiations.

Mediators can often help actors move past seeming intractable conflicts. They give shape to negotiations, helping to build momentum by sequencing agreements and by keeping actors focused on broader goals. Mediators also set up rules that lend procedural legitimacy to the negotiations at hand, increasing the likelihood that the actors will buy into the final accord and overcome lingering mistrust of their adversaries. In this way, it is critical that they be impartial. If mediators have a stake in the outcome, then they might make rules that favor one side, or insert their own priorities into the debate at inappropriate times that can derail momentum toward agreement.

Mediators have been used in Tunisia, yet their impartiality has been questioned. The first attempt was made by Slim Riahi, a businessman turned politician, who flew Rached Ghannouchi in his private jet to meet his rival Beji Caid Sebsi in private in Paris. Riahi’s attempt was quickly criticized as been driven by political motivation to gain visibility and notoriety.

After Riahi’s unsuccessful effort, four highly influential organizations—the national labor union, the employers’ union, the Tunisian Bar Association, and the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LTDH)—sponsored and mediated the national dialogue and came up with a roadmap to help Tunisia out of its political crisis. The lead mediator, the national labor union (UGTT), at various times stated its preference or held up a deal between the political parties out of its own personal interest. The UGTT and the current government have had multiple conflicts since the last elections and some of these clashes are still unsettled. Another co-mediator, the employers’ union, called for the dissolution of the Ennahda-led government several times since August 2013. This pattern has created tension between the organization and leaders from the ruling party. LTDH and the bar association have also had their share of clashes with Ennahda, seen publically in tit-for-tat statements and televised debates.

The UGTT and the three other mediators should be involved in negotiations, given their popularity and power in Tunisian politics. But the other actors should see it as a negotiating party with interests like any other, not as a mediator that can broker a deal between the negotiating parties.

Foreigners have also attempted to mediate the conflict in various forms. The German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, visited Tunisia for two days to mediate between Ennahda and Nidaa Tunis. Leaders of each political party have met with representatives from the US embassy. Both Rachid Ghannouchi and Beji Caid Essebsi, the presidents of the two parties, met with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers, and both attended breakout sessions in France. But none of these efforts have been sustained over the long term. Without maintaining the critical momentum necessary to reach agreement over complicated issues, such piecemeal mediations over several days will remain ineffective at driving comprehensive agreements.

Tunisian political leaders should consider long-term international mediation efforts, pursued in countless countries around the world. A cadre of diplomats who have deep experience in this field, could facilitate the neutral atmosphere missing in negotiations thus far. To name just two examples, former Finnish president Marti Ahtissari played a prominent role in solving conflicts in Namibia, Indonesia, Iraq, and Kosovo. In Kosovo, a plan that bears his name provided the roadmap for Kosovar self-governance. (Ahtissari, who speaks French, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008 for his efforts.) US Senator George Mitchell also played a critical role in reaching a solution to the killing in Northern Ireland, having spent several months in tense meetings with both sides of the conflict.

Tunisia’s current conflict might not be as violent as those mentioned above. It is, however, as intractable—and its outcome will be critical in shaping the future of homegrown democracy in the Arab world and beyond. International actors, notably the United Nations, have mechanisms for providing in-depth, impartial mediation from highly experienced diplomats to political conflicts around the world. These actors also have an interest in driving a deal in Tunisia that can be held up as a model for other aspiring democracies. Given the successes and sacrifices so far, Tunisia deserves to give itself the best chance at concluding a peaceful transition to democracy.

Bassem Bouguerra is a Tunisian activist, commentator, and the president of the Tunisian Institutional Reform, a non-profit organization currently focused on security sector reform. Duncan Pickard is a nonresident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Related Experts: Bassem Bouguerra

Image: National Constituent Assembly protests, July 27, 2013. (Photo: Tristan Dreisbach, Tunisia Live)