Ali Laarayedh, the prime minister–designate of Tunisia, will enter a more partisan political climate than did his predecessor in December 2011. Hamadi Jebali, the outgoing prime minister, was known to be conciliatory and an avoider of conflict. He took office in the afterglow of democratic elections, in a coalition between Ennahda (his own moderate Islamic party) and two secular parties. Fourteen months later, after the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid, Tunisian politics are significantly more partisan.

Jebali responded by calling for an apolitical cabinet. The Shura Council, the policymaking body of Ennahda, overruled Jebali and appointed Laarayedh in his place. Although the appointment of Laarayedh signals a more aggressive tack from Ennahdha, it does not spell the end of Tunisian democracy. The country’s current partisanship reflects the growing pains of an emerging democracy with low risk for political cataclysm. 

Laarayedh will be more assertive than Jebali, although to what extent and in what areas is unclear. One of the lessons of the crisis is that the Shura Council is fully in control of Ennahda policy and, by extension, in many ways the policy of the Tunisian government. The Shura Council selected Laarayedh not only because he is a hardliner—as he has often been described in international media—but also because he is part of Ennahda’s political establishment and highly respected in the Council. He was considered an effective interior minister, but hampered by the ministry’s intractable, pre-revolution institutional memory. His name was often circulated in top Ennahda circles as the party’s likely candidate for the presidency in the next election. He was selected not because he was a hardline but because he was the next in line. 

The selection of the new cabinet, due to be announced around March 8 will be the first measure of Ennahda’s willingness to compromise under Laarayedh. Ennahda president Rached Ghannouchi promised another coalition government, something required since Ennahda holds a plurality but not a majority of seats in the National Constituent Assembly. The makeup of the government and the process of selecting ministers could indicate the elusiveness of consensus in the final stages of the constitution-making process. But Prime Minister Laarayedh will have no formal role in that process and is not likely to interfere with negotiations within the Constituent Assembly. One important constitutional decision—that the president would be directly elected—was settled by the Troika, the heads of the three coalition parties. But Ghannouchi, not Jebali, took the lead in those meetings, a precedent that is unlikely to change with Laarayedh. 

Laarayedh’s influence over the broader policy direction of the Tunisian government will also be limited by his coalition partners and his brief tenure. The new constitution is expected by the fall, making Laarayedh a lame duck before elections six months later. Indeed, one of Jebali’s arguments for a technocratic government was that a caretaker government should fill the gap between now and the adoption of the constitution. The two most important policy priorities in the next months will be the budget crisis and domestic (especially border) security. The budgetary process is the domain of the finance minister, who under the previous government came from Ettakatol, a secular party in the coalition. Security challenges are handled by the interior minister, Laarayedh’s previous post, leaving him less day-to-day influence over security policy than in the past. Laarayedh doubtlessly will wield great influence to affect government policy, but he will be constrained by his coalition partners and short time in office. 

There are two cataclysmic scenarios that might be more likely in the aftermath of Laarayedh’s selection. The first is the breakdown of the constitution-making process. The Shura Council to this point has taken conciliatory stances and several important turns, in particular its decision to exclude the mention of Sharia in the constitution and its embrace of semi-presidentialism, a key demand of secular parties. The Shura Council’s rejection of a technocratic government could signal the end of its compromises, which would complicate the ongoing negotiation over executive powers. The Shura Council could also decide to seek a popular referendum to achieve its priorities: the constitution will either be approved by a two-thirds majority of the Constituent Assembly, or a simple majority of the Assembly followed by a popular referendum. The referendum continues to be the worst-case scenario for virtually all parties, but the Shura Council might feel more empowered to threaten it. The breakdown of the constitution-making process is unlikely, however, given the significant progress that has already been made and the fact that Ennahda would be unwise to risk new constituent-assembly elections given their current commanding plurality. 

Second, the appointment of Laarayedh could empower Ennahda’s extremist wing or unaffiliated Salafi groups. These groups might see the appointment of a more-conservative prime minister as a victory, encouraging them to make further demands of the Shura Council. This scenario is also unlikely given Ennahda’s distancing from the Salafis and Ghannouchi’s powerful influence toward moderation. The diversity of views within Ennahda does, however, make for a tenuous relationship between its extremist and more moderate tracks that continue to vex party leadership. 

In the absence of these two disastrous but improbable scenarios, Tunisia under Laarayedh will continue to make progress to a stable democracy much like it did before, though in a more partisan political atmosphere. Ennahda’s ultimate interest is shared with virtually all Tunisians: the establishment of a lasting democracy. Ennahda will continue to be the steward of the democratic transition and, most importantly, will succumb to the peaceful transfer of power if asked to by the Tunisian people.

Duncan Pickard is a non-resident fellow for the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East focusing on political and economic development in North Africa. 

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