Tunisia democracy faces crucial moment

As deep political standoff shows no signs of abating, will Tunisia manage to avoid the violent path Egypt has gone down?

Tunisia politics
Many Tunisians have been calling for a technocratic government following a political assassination in July [Reuters]

Tunis, Tunisia – From uprising to democratic transition to deep political divides, Tunisia and Egypt have followed similar yet distinctive paths over the past two and a half years.

With political tensions between secularists and Islamists coming to a bloody head this week in Egypt, Tunisians are watching their fellow North African country closer than ever.

The next few days will be decisive in determining Tunisia’s political path. The political stalemate that has ensued since the assassination of leftist politician Mohammed Brahimi on July 25 is unlikely to be easily resolved.

Many members of the opposition are calling for Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh’s government to be dissolved and replaced by a “technocrat” government, arguing that this is necessary to see the country through its transition period.

There is also fierce debate over the future of the country’s National Constituent Assembly, the elected body charged with writing a new constitution and preparing for the elections, tasks which it was on the verge of completing.

Ennahdha, the governing party which shares ideological links with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, has so far rejected the idea of a technocratic government, which it sees as an attack on its political legitimacy. On Saturday morning, the Islamist party began a political congress in Tunis, the capital, which is likely to run until late on Sunday.

Violence averted

So far, Tunisia has been spared of the spiraling mass violence that Egypt has plunged into. The opposition has focused its efforts to bring down the Ennahdha-led government and the National Constituent Assembly through civil disobedience, without resorting to the use of force.

Even for those Tunisians who have called on the armed forces to intervene in the same way that the Egyptian military stepped in to force President Mohammed Morsi out, Tunisia is a country where the military has traditionally abstained from political involvement, a role long held by the police instead.

That is not to say that there is not a deep distrust on all sides. Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahdha, has condemned those calling for a dissolution of the government as “anarchists” and “Marxists”.

Mongi Rahoui, head of the leftist Popular Front, the movement that both of the politicians assassinated this year belonged to, is amongst the members of the NCA boycotting the body and participating in a sit-in 

“We are not calling for anarchy, we are reacting to the fact that our party is in danger of terrorism and economic crisis,” he was quoted by the AFP news agency as saying on Friday, in response to Ghannouchi.

There is a fear within Ennahdha that should they lose political power, there could well be a return to the kind of political repression the party faced under the previous regime.

“The Egyptian situation is helping us to understand better that what is happening in Egypt is not separate,” Osama Al Saghir, a member of the Ennahdha party and the Constituent Assembly, told Al Jazeera in an interview.

“There is clearly a kind of project to get back to the old regime. This is what happened in Egypt, and they are trying to do the same in Tunisia.”

It is notable, however, that whilst some of the members boycotting the constituent assembly have supported the Egyptian military’s massacre of the pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters, the majority of political parties have explicitly condemned them, including Al Massar, Nidaa Tounes and Al Watad.

Frustration with Ennahdha

Tunisia’s powerful union, known as the UGTT by its French acronym, has played a crucial role in mediating the conflict, but is becoming increasingly frustrated with what it views as Ennahdha’s refusal to pay heed to widespread frustration over country’s economic and security situation.

On Friday, the union said it would no longer be playing the role of mediator as it is itself a political force with an agenda it wishes to push for.

The UGTT’s Sami Tahria told the Tunisian national press agency on Friday that Ghannouchi was trying to win time.

The UGTT supporta the calls for a non-political, technocrat government, but differs from the protesters at Bardo, the site of an ongoing sit-in, because it is not supporting an end to the efforts of the National Constituent Assembly to finalise the constitution and pave the way for elections by the end of the year.

I think a technocrat government would be really dangerous for the country.

by Ennahdha official

Underlying the standoff over the constituent assembly is a power struggle over the nature of the political system that Tunisia will have in the future, with each player trying to negotiate terms most favourable to its own interests.

In the coming weeks, the assembly was set to negotiate a draft law on “the protection of the revolution”, legislation that would prevent politicians who had served under the regime of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from running for office.

The party that this would hurt the most is the secularist Nidaa Tounes and those parties that would hope to form an alliance with it in the future.

If the assembly were to continue on its present work – currently on hold after its speaker unilaterally suspended the assembly – with Ennahdha holding the clear majority, these parties would have little means of derailing it.

Ennahdha believes that a technocrat government, far from being politically neutral, is a thinly-veiled attempt by loyalists of the old regime to put their people back in power.

“What do you think it means to have a technocrat government? Who are the technocrats in Tunisia? When we say technocrats, we mean people who worked all these years with Ben Ali,” Al Saghir said.

“I think a technocrat government would be really dangerous for the country.”

Niadaa Tounes has already prepared a list of people it hopes to see in the government.

“We have a list of independent people for the next government. Once [Prime Minister] Ali Laarayedh’s government resigns we will provide our list,” Lazher Akremi, spokesperson of Nidaa Tounes, told Tunisia Live earlier this week.

Yet many of those also calling for a non-political government, notably the UGTT, the Popular Front and several other political parties, do not want a return of the old regime any more than Ennahdha.

The coming days will be decisive in determining whether Tunisia can once again set itself apart in resolving these divides through consensus, or whether it will go down a similar path to that taken in Egypt.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies