The Fragility of Tunisia’s Success Story

Tunisia has been considered by most observers as the success story of the Arab Spring. If compared with the disastrous situations in Libya, Yemen, and Syria, and with the increasingly complicated situation in Egypt, Tunisia’s success seems an apparent truth.

It has been noted though, that even Tunisia’s apparent exceptionalism is, in reality, held together by a very fragile framework. The political consensus reached after the 2013 crisis ignited by two high-profile assassinations of secularist leaders and subsequent large popular demonstrations calling for the resignations of the elected Ennahda government, the drafting of the constitution—one of the most forward-looking in the area—and the success of presidential and legislative elections in 2014, are all indicative of a successful political transition. This success is, however, offset by the negative performance of the economy, which according to most observers is in deep recession and needs strong and decisive reforms. Tunisian elites have focused almost entirely and completely on reaching political consensus and overcoming the ideological polarization between Islamists and secularists that threatened to tear the country apart, while neglecting economic reforms.

Tunisia needs, because of decades-long neglect, deep economic reforms. The new Tunisian political class, likely daunted by the difficulty of these economic reforms and a possible popular backlash, did not address the issue with the strength and decisiveness needed.

At the same time, recent political developments in Tunisia have produced distressing signals. Most notable is the split in the relative majority party Nidaa Tounes, which has led its former Secretary General Mohsen Marzouk to leave the party and form his own political party, Mashru’ (Project). This has led to a peculiar situation in which Nidaa Tounes no longer finds itself the majority party, but is still represented by the largest number of cabinet members. Another party in the governing coalition—the Free Patriotic Union (UPL)—also finds itself in crisis, as some of its members have left the party to join Nidaa Tounes. While the reasons for this defection are still unclear and rumors abound about sums of money used to entice these defections, the mere existence of these rumors hints at suspicions of corruption that strongly weaken the ruling coalition. In addition, the fourth party of the coalition, Afek Tounes, seems unable to define for itself a clear identity or program and decide whether it is going to continue backing the existing government or join the opposition.

These and more facts and rumors paint a picture of extreme political fragility that goes contrary to the perception of Tunisia’s political success. Recently, rumors of the possible resignation of Prime Minister Habib Essid due to this ambiguous situation that resulted from all of the political infighting have circulated. Evidence of the possibility of a collapse of the government is the fact that it finds itself daily in a weaker position when it comes to taking decisions or proposing laws. This is due to the weakening of the support of the political groups in parliament as a result of the increasingly fragmented parliamentary situation.

This weakening of the cohesion of the political actors could potentially be more dangerous than expected. It creates a vacuum of political authority that could easily be filled by actors with negative intentions, such members and sympathizers of the former regime who could see an opportunity to regain their lost power by emphasizing a return to the more predictable and secure “good old days.” It could open the door for an authoritarian restoration to return order to the country, which, because of increasing corruption, criminal gang activities, and terrorism, is slowly drifting towards instability.

Tunisia’s recent political developments are not all negative. In a recent interview Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist-leaning Ennahda announced that he will formalize the separation of the party’s political activity from that of religious proselytism at the party’s tenth Congress in Rades from May 20-22. Ghannouchi said in the interview that the change was in part an attempt to distance Ennahda from Islamist extremists groups, citing the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) as an example, while also attributing the decision to the success of Tunisia’s democratic transition. This separation between party and religious movement is also likely an attempt to distance the party from a political Islamist framework so that it will be in a better position to work with Nidaa Tounes and other secular parties it can engage with in a governing coalition.

Another positive sign could come from the realization of the long talked about municipal and regional elections. Previously scheduled for October 2016, the elections have now been moved to late spring of 2017. On the one hand, this could be seen in a negative light because it shows the lack of agreement among the political class regarding the devolution of powers and the restructuring of political authority that would come with these elections. On the other, it could be seen positively as a way for those members of the political elite concerned with the success of the political reform project to gain time to foster a wider and deeper public debate, especially within civil society. This would allow them to gain the necessary consensus to reach a successful outcome, which is the effective holding of elections and the realization of a shared vision for the decentralization of Tunisia’s political system.

These political developments could be seen as healthy policy making and the continuous reframing of political groups as being a normal process in any parliamentary system. Nevertheless, security and economic woes, exacerbated by the lack of strong democratic institutions such as a professional and well-trained press corps and cohesive civil society that could act as a watchdog, could easily undermine the political process and exacerbate the fragility of Tunisia’s transitional process.

The international community is correctly focusing its support in trying to help Tunisia overcome its economic and security difficulties. New weapons and training for Tunisian security forces have been supplied by the United States and its European allies and more help is foreseen. They, along with the IMF and the World Bank, are discussing ways to finance and support Tunisia’s much-needed economic reforms. Focusing on these issues is correct and legitimate, but it should not blind the international community from continuing to focus on the importance of strengthening Tunisia’s political process. Particular attention should be paid to strengthening the work of the parliament and other democratic institutions through staff training, parliamentarian exchanges, and inter-parliamentary collaboration. Strong efforts should also be made to help Tunisia develop its media sector and in particular the investigative capacities of its members. International actors should continue to engage, work with, and strengthen Tunisia’s growing civil society. By doing this, the international community can enable the pro-democracy actors in Tunisia to maintain the upper hand and continue on the course toward a pluralistic and inclusive political system.

Karim Mezran is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East focusing on the politics and economics of North Africa.

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Image: A general view shows the Assembly of the Representatives of the People in Tunis, Tunisia, May 10, 2016 (Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters)