Three Lessons Drawn from Tunisia’s Cabinet Formation Process

The political maneuverings in Tunisia over the last few weeks bear the hallmarks of a nascent democracy. Developments have involved negotiations, checks on power, and nuanced political calculations that demonstrate an overall political maturity among Tunisian authorities—the reason why so many international observers and policymakers have time and again heralded the North African country as the so-called Arab Spring’s “best hope” for success. Facets of the cabinet formation process highlight critical lessons about Tunisia’s political landscape, but they also underscore areas of vulnerability regarding the country’s ongoing transition. 

First, winning an election does not mean one can go it alone. Prime Minister Habib Essid’s first proposal of a cabinet included only one other party, the Free Patriotic Union. The move by Nidaa Tounes—its first major step on the heels of the elections—reflected an inclination by the party to exclude other stakeholders on the political scene. On one level, it was a sign of politics as usual: the winners felt they had secured the upper hand and had little incentive to reach out to the other major parties. Significantly, it was criticized not only by Ennahda but also by the leftist Popular Front and liberal Afek Tounes, which indicated they would not vote in favor of the government, forcing Essid back to the drawing board. Although it won the legislative and executive branches in elections, Nidaa Tounes learned an early lesson on the need to take confidence-building measures—with more than just Ennahda—to earn buy-in and take the necessary steps forward.

Second, the cabinet appointments suggest that the two major parties operate from positions of both strength and weakness, and they need each other. Ennahda may have lost support after a troubled period in power, but it remains a political force to be reckoned with, having won sixty-nine seats in parliament. Striking a conciliatory and pragmatic tone, the party leadership signaled their early willingness to join a coalition. When Nidaa Tounes decided instead to forge ahead on its own, it seemed that Ennahda might accept the outcome and assume the role of the formidable opposition, hoping to capitalize on the moment as Nidaa Tounes took on all of the risk of governance. That they have not done so, but rather agreed to exchange the role of opposition for one ministry and a few other junior posts, can be interpreted as a strategic step taken out of fear of being left out of the political process. On the other hand, joining the coalition can be considered a sign of Ennahda’s strength; they are demonstrating maturity and responsibility in sharing the governance burden of undertaking the necessary economic and political reforms.

Nidaa Tounes, a coalition party comprising many different stakeholders, galvanized support after an imperfect and troubled interim governance period led by Ennahda. Riding the wave of anti-Islamism pervading the broader region, Nidaa Tounes secured the needed votes at the ballot box. While the voters ensured its leadership in both the legislative and executive branches, these victories do not translate into enough power to allow them to ignore other stakeholders. Despite their initial misstep, Nidaa Tounes’ return to consultations with Ennahda and other smaller parties reflects a capacity for political compromise. It remains to be seen, however, whether Nidaa Tounes’ outreach to Ennahda will prompt the former to fragment, given certain vehemently anti-Islamist segments of the base, or to effectively pivot to a pro-reform agenda and platform.

The maneuverings demonstrate how the two major parties need each other. They will navigate a delicate, perhaps sometimes uncomfortable, partnership to share in the outcomes of governance. 

Third, a process was upheld and respected.
On the heels of a campaign during which Nidaa Tounes emphasized what it was not rather than what it stood for, Essid’s initial cabinet makeup—albeit a unilateral move meant to appease anti-Ennahda elements of its base—raised concerns that the political space for the opposition would shrink. But rather than force through the homogeneous cabinet, agreeing to backroom deals that would have bypassed Ennahda and brought in a handful more votes needed to approve the government, Nidaa Tounes revisited the cabinet makeup altogether. Some speculate that the party’s initial misstep was intentional, meant to demonstrate to its base how a unilateral move would be unwise. In doing so, Nidaa Tounes gained the political cover needed to invite other parties into a ruling coalition. Whatever the rationale, all stakeholders committed to a process and respected the formal and informal systems of checks and balances exercised to ensure a level political playing field.

These observations bode well for the country’s long-term promise of becoming a stable, pluralistic democracy. Factoring in the domestic and regional pressures, however, they also underscore the fragility of the coalition. Tunisia operates in a regional context, characterized by divides between opponents and proponents of political Islam. The country’s elected officials and international partners face the challenge to support political inclusiveness and compromise, which are sustainable and long-term solutions to addressing shared security interests.

In the late 1980s, the now deposed Ben Ali regime took nascent steps toward opening up the political sphere, loosening restrictions on the press, and passing constitutional amendments limiting presidential terms. He then used security concerns, purportedly faced in light of the conflict in neighboring Algeria, to justify a subsequent clampdown and regression of such reforms. The international community did little to maintain the momentum, placing higher priority on addressing the security dilemma. Circumstances have certainly changed since then, but given the regional context in which Tunisia is transitioning today, there is a chance of making a similar mistake twenty-five years later. Clashes between the Tunisian military and extremists along the borders have increased; radicalized Tunisians return home after fighting alongside the Islamic State in Syria; Libya’s deteriorating situation has growing economic and security impacts on its neighbor.

Such issues absolutely need to be addressed, but not at the expense of political inclusiveness. Indeed, the two priorities are not mutually exclusive and ought not to be treated as such if Tunisia wishes to overcome divisive politics and achieve gains in the shared interest of all its citizenry, and if its international partners want a reliable democratic partner in the region.

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

Lara Talverdian is an Associate Director for Research at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East focusing on North Africa.

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Image: Tunisia's Prime Minister-designate Habib Essid (bottom) delivers a speech in the parliament to present his new government in Tunis February 4, 2015. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi