Tunisia’s Stalled Political Transition

The political transition in Tunisia has stalled. The country’s major political parties and labor unions agreed to a roadmap in October for reaching agreement on the transition’s remaining issues within four weeks. But while today marks the deadline for presenting Tunisia’s final draft of the new constitution, the parties involved could not even complete the first task: agree on an interim prime minister who would run the country until new elections could be held, initially expected in the spring. The clock has stopped on the four-week countdown, and the increasingly elusive agreement leaves Tunisia with no clear next steps.

The roadmap, devised in the aftermath of the assassination of Mohammed Brahmi, an opposition member of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) on July 25, remains a fragile prospect. Brahmi’s death, the second killing of a leftist leader since March, sank the Tunisian political establishment into deep divisions. Ennahdha, the ruling party with an Islamic tendency, pledged to investigate the murder while continuing to draft the country’s new constitution—the main task of the NCA. Several secular opposition parties boycotted the NCA, however, until the Ennahdha-led government made significant progress on the investigation and agreed to step down after tense negotiations. The secular party Nidaa Tunis, led by former prime minister Beji Caid Essebsi, moved quickly to capitalize on Ennahdha’s weakness. Though Nidaa Tunis is not represented in the NCA (the party was founded after elections in October 2011), its leadership took advantage of partisan divisions and emerged as a key critic of the government.

Negotiations through a national dialogue to end the boycott and continue the transition began in September. Ennahdha and a band of secular parties, led by Nidaa Tunis and Essebsi, were the key opposing players in the process. The national labor union, the UGTT, served as the lead mediator, along with three other trade associations. UGTT was hardly an impartial player; its fierce leftist orientation is no secret. Given the spoiler role that it plays in Tunisian politics—the UGTT can draw Tunisia into chaos by calling for general strike—politicians needed the union’s backing of a resulting roadmap.

The roadmap, signed in October, included a plan for reaching agreement on the last remaining issues facing the political transition. Most importantly, Ennahdha agreed to step down from government in favor of a nonpartisan prime minister. It is hard to overstate Ennahdha’s move, the first time that a Tunisian government has stepped down peacefully from power in the modern era. The roadmap set a timeframe for the selection of an interim prime minister by November 1, the appointment of the ninth and final member of the independent elections commission by November 8 (the previous nine had been approved by the NCA), the finalization of the electoral law and calendar by November 15, and, finally, the adoption of the new constitution by November 22.

The roadmap mitigated Nidaa Tunis’, UGTT’s, and Ennahdha’s concerns, But Nidaa Tunis and UGTT doubted the integrity of elections held under the Ennahdha government, even if administered by an independent commission. Secular parties also wanted to remove Ennahdha’s incentive to delay elections to stay in power. Ennahdha had the corollary concern: if they gave up power, elections would never be held. Ennahdha viewed the adoption of the constitution as a sufficient safeguard against an interim government cancelling elections and insisted that the constitution be finished before resigning.

Deliberations for the selection of an interim prime minister began on October 25. Ennahdha backed former interior minister Ahmed Mestiri, but other parties blocked the nomination. The parties suspended their meetings indefinitely on November 5, and the roadmap—along with Tunisia’s political transition—has stayed in limbo since. To make matters worse, the administrative court ruled that the appointment of the first eight members of the elections was technically illegal. If the court’s decision stands, the NCA will have to reopen the contentious debate on the members of all nine members of the elections commission, not just the ninth. No progress was made on the electoral law either, threatening the legitimacy of interim political actors.

With the constitution agreed to by a consensus committee within the NCA, the complete final draft is ready for the plenary, which must adopt each article of the constitution by simple majority. The draft includes significant concessions from Ennahdha and appears to enjoy the support of the majority of NCA members, though it is difficult to speculate how contentious the plenary session might get given the increasing partisanship. Once approved, the full draft will require either approval of two-thirds of the NCA or, in the case that it fails two consecutive votes, a national referendum.

The next step in the roadmap remains unclear. With no apparent movement, agreement, or scheduled negotiations between the parties, the Tunisian stalemate could seriously threaten its sluggish march towards a stable democracy. To get back on track, Ennahda and the secular parties must prioritize the dialogue over an interim prime minister. Although some have suggested new names, the parties thus far have taken no serious steps to come to a decision. Amidst bickering partisanship and finger-pointing, mediation through a truly impartial, perhaps even foreign, actor may be needed. Tunisian leaders and international partners, however, must act quickly or risk permanently losing one of the more promising transitions of the Arab Spring.

Duncan Pickard is a nonresident fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East focusing on North African politics.

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Image: 1st of May 2012 protest on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, Tunis, Tunisia (Photo: Wikimedia/scossargilbert/CC license)