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Tunisia: A fragile consensus to avoid a civil war

Tunisia: A fragile consensus to avoid a civil war
  • PublishedAugust 5, 2013

When the Ben Ali regime fell in Tunis on 14 January 2011 and the first anti-Mubarak demonstrations started in Egypt, the political leaders in Cairo were quick to tell us that “Egypt is not Tunisia”. By this they meant that Egypt would be protected from any similar revolution by specific historical and cultural factors, its political system and its geostrategic role. We all know what happened next. 

Thirty months later, now that President Mohammed Morsi has been deposed and the Muslim Brotherhood administration has fallen in Egypt, the heads of the Ennahda Islamist party, a member of the international Muslim Brotherhood movement and in power in Tunisia, have also been quick to tell us that “Tunisia is not Egypt”, claiming that the situation in their country is less explosive than on the banks of the Nile. This analysis is not totally without merit. Nevertheless it does appear overly optimistic. Since the same causes often produce the same effects, we cannot entirely rule out a “second Egyptian revolution” being repeated in Tunisia. 

It is true that in Tunisia, the troika (the coalition in power), which arose from the elections held on 23 October 2011, includes Ennahda and two centre-left parties: the Congress for the Republic (CPR or Al-Mottamar) and the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties (FDTL or Ettakatol). Power is held by three provisional incumbents: the Head of the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), in charge of devising a new Constitution, Mustapha Ben Jaafar (Ettakatol); the President of the Republic, Moncef Marzouki (Al Mottamar); and the Prime Minister, Ali Larayedh (Ennahda). There is thus at least some level of discussion within the executive and the Assembly works in a spirit of consensus around a lowest common denominator. This was not the case in Egypt, where, until 30 June, the reins were held by an omnipotent president, Mohammed Morsi, and his regimented and overpowering movement. Of course, it is not without difficulty that consensus is reached in Tunisia and the opposition is constantly critical of Ennahda’s desire for hegemony and its plan to establish an Islamic republic and control all the apparatus of the State: the courts, the police, public administration and even the army. 

These accusations are not entirely unwarranted. Far from it.
Ennahda, under its “intellectual leader” Rashid al-Ghannushi
, dominates the legislative and executive branches of government, and is indeed attempting to implement its plans, both political (Islamisation of the State) and social (Islamisation of society). But the Islamist party, which is confronted at every turn by strong opposition from civil society, often finds itself forced to back down with some of its plans. For example, it was unable to enshrine sharia law as the main source of legislation in the text of the constitution. Nor was it able to modify the civil nature of the State, now clearly highlighted in the latest draft of the constitution. The same thing has happened with regard to women’s rights: the Islamists have unwillingly accepted not tampering with them. At least for the time being.

Nevertheless, there are still some battles ahead to prevent radicals from taking advantage of this transitional period – supposed to be used for drafting a new constitution – in order to impose their religious vision or political project in the laws of the country. And the success of the current transitional phase, which should end with general elections at the end of the year or during 2014 (the actual dates have not yet been set) will depend largely on Ennahda’s capacity to make concessions and the opposition’s willingness not to interrupt the national dialogue. 

For the moment, and even if there have been complaints from the opposition (Nidaa Tounes, Al-Massar and the Popular Front) or from civil society (the Tamarod movement), calling for the dissolution of the Assembly and the provisional government and the establishment of a National Unity Government, there is no reason to believe that political dialogue has been definitively interrupted and that a civil disobedience movement could be set up to overturn the current provisional powers. 

No political role for the army

On another level, the Tunisian army, which was such a key part of the success of the 2011 “revolution”, does not intend to play any political role. As a result of both its ethos and history, the army prefers to stay out of political issues. It is a republican army, which serves the citizens. Its role is limited to guarding the borders and protecting the people in exceptional situations. 

Lest we forget, during the January 2011 “revolution”, the army refused to clash with the people. After the flight of Ben Ali, there was a power vacuum, yet the army refused to seize this opportunity. Furthermore, the former head of the armed forces, General Rachid Ammar, declared in early July, two weeks before retiring, that he had refused to take power when the former prime minister, Mohamed Ghannouchi, had offered it to him. On the contrary, he had insisted that the presidential powers be transferred in accordance with the rules of the constitution. This made the Tunisian “revolution” both civil and… civilised. 

It is hard to imagine this army now behaving like its Egyptian counterpart. In the event of a major political crisis, it would seek to protect the people, defend the republican institutions and public facilities and spare the country from the consequences of an unpredictable civil war, while leaving the task of acting in a spirit of consensus to preserve national unity to the political leaders.

There is another factor which points to a transition that will be difficult, complicated and sometimes even painful, but also negotiated and relatively calm: the civilised, moderate and peaceful temperament of the Tunisian people. A people of sailors, farmers and salesmen, the Tunisian character is marked by open-mindedness. Although strongly attached to their Muslim and Arab identity, they never forget that they are the fruit of a mix of many Mediterranean races and cultures. This translates into a strong affinity to Europe. The proof: 70 to 80% of the country’s economic exchanges are with the European Union (exports, imports, external investments, income from tourism, remittances from expatriate Tunisians etc.). 

The Ennahda movement, with its pan-Islamist agenda, may be attempting to diversify the country’s economic partnerships, but Europe is still irreplaceable for local business figures, a situation that is unlikely to change any time soon. 

This has not escaped the notice of the leaders of Ennahda, who have shown they can be pragmatic and deal with the historical and geographical constraints. They have thus often been seen to sacrifice their ideological goals on the altar of a certain realpolitik: an approach totally disregarded by the Egyptian Islamists, yet one which would doubtless have enabled them to avoid their current political isolation

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