Showdown for Tunisia's fledgling democracy

Opposition accuses Ennahdha Party of intimidation and overstaying term in office.

    Showdown for Tunisia's fledgling democracy
    Prominent Tunisian opposition politician Chokri Belaid was assassinated in Tunis in February 2013 [Reuters]

    Sidi Bouzid/Tunis, Tunisia - When the ruling coalition known as the Troika came to power following Tunisia's first genuinely democratic elections in October 2011, it made a "moral pledge" to leave power within a year. 

    Nearly two years later, however, the Islamist Ennahdha party and its two junior partners - the Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol - are still in power. And Tunisia's constituent assembly, elected nearly two years ago, has still not finalised a new constitution for the country.

    Tunisia's opposition is accusing Ennahdha and its allies of overstaying their term and of using intimidation to try to silence dissent: two opposition politicians have been assassinated so far this year. The Troika, the opposition charges, has been using the constituent assembly to push through legislation aimed at stacking the odds in their favour, rather than sticking to its original mandate.

    Ettakatol’s Mustapha Ben Jaafar, until recently speaker of the assembly, has this week thrown his support behind the opposition’s call for a non-partisan government, leaving Ennahdha virtually isolated. This followed his suspension of the assembly two weeks ago.

    From Ennahdha's perspective, its fears that some in the opposition may try to keep it from ever regaining power have been exacerbated by the Egyptian military's brutal suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian Islamist movement that has close ties to Ennahdha.

    So far, little ground has been ceded by either side in negotiations between Ennahdha head Rachid Ghannouchi and opposition leaders, over what is proving to be the biggest test yet for Tunisia's democratic transition.

    High stakes

    Opposition frustration at what it views as stalling tactics by Ennahdha to hold onto power first erupted in February 2013, following the assassination of Chokri Belaid, a leftist politician and feisty critic of Ennahdha. Ennahdha responded by reshuffling the government and allowing some independent candidates to take charge of key ministries.

    We need to have a majority of actors to reach a consensus. Legally, they [the Troika] have had no mandate since October 23, 2012.

    - Mohsen Marzouk, member of the Nidaa Tounes executive committee

    And last month's assassination of Mohammed Brahimi, a member of the constituent assembly from Sidi Bouzid who like Belaid belonged to the leftist Democratic Patriots' Movement, sparked one of the biggest protests that the country has seen since its 2011 uprising, at Bardo, where the constituent assembly meets.

    This time, the opposition, with the powerful Tunisian General Trade Union (UGTT by its French acronym) negotiating on their behalf, has decided to take bolder action, beginning with a boycott of the assembly. They have presented the Troika with a series of propositions, calling for an interim non-partisan government to be appointed to oversee the country until parliamentary and presidential elections could be held.

    In a press conference on Thursday, Ghannouchi rejected the proposition for a non-political interim government, claiming that the high toll of absenteeism among opposition members is to blame for the lengthy period it has taken to finalise the constitution.

    The political horse-trading has continued this week, with an Ennahdha party council reaffirming its position against a non-political interim government. Party spokesperson Osama al-Saghir told Al Jazeera in a phone interview that such a government would be a ruse to sideline the Islamist party.

    Hassine Abassi, the head of UGTT, met with Ghannouchi on Monday, and the pair are due for yet another meeting on Wednesday.

    The Ennahdha leader flew to Paris to meet with Beji Caid Essebsi, head of the Nidaa Tounes Party, last Thursday. They have agreed to hold a second meeting this week.

    Yet with Ennahdha firm in its conviction that it will not give up power, and the opposition concerned that the democratic transition risks being permanently derailed if it does not take a decisive stand now, exactly what is open for negotiation remains unclear.

    Mohsen Marzouk, a member of the Nidaa Tounes executive committee, told Al Jazeera that the party would not accept any one-on-one deal with Ennahdha and that discussions must continue between all parties, including civil society as represented by the UGTT.

    "We need to have a majority of actors to reach a consensus," he said. "Legally, they [the Troika] have had no mandate since October 23, 2012."

    Climate of fear

    Particularly damaging to the democratic transition, many opposition politicians claim, is a growing climate of intimidation. They cite the Troika's indulgent attitude towards Salafists and the rise of the Leagues of Protection of the Revolution, an organisation that has a track record of using violence against anyone who happens to challenge the Troika too vocally.

    There have been arrests in connection with both political assassinations, and Ennahdha denies that it is linked to either killing.

    We had a revolution and thought we had won freedom, only to end up in a situation where we can't even sleep at home anymore.

    - Mongi Rahoui, head of the Democratic Patriots' Movement

    Ennahdha's Osama al-Saghir said there is no campaign by the party to intimidate its opposition.

    But Mongi Rahoui, the current head of the Democratic Patriots' Movement, says he and other outspoken politicians are experiencing similar threats to those faced by Belaid and Brahimi in the days preceding their deaths, in what he views as a deliberate campaign by Ennahdha to silence dissent.

    "Concerning the legitimacy that comes with elections, we are not against this," Rahoui said. "But when a party manoeuvres to position itself to control the administration, and to create an atmosphere of violence so that opposition politicians will be afraid, we cannot remain inactive."

    Rahoui shows me one of several Facebook messages from someone using a pseudonym, in which a man threatens to rape his mother if he does not keep quiet. Rahoui himself was beaten by security forces during the protests that followed Brahimi's killing, according to his wife.

    With two of his comrades already dead, the threats are not to be dismissed. Rahoui no longer sleeps in his home, after cars and motorbikes began circulating his house at strange hours on an almost daily basis.

    "We had a revolution and thought we had won freedom, only to end up in a situation where we can't even sleep at home anymore," Rahoui said.

    Belaid’s widow, Besma Khalfaoui, says she has also been facing daily threats, and has been forced to move from house to house to try to remain out of harm’s way. She has been outspoken in her belief that Ennahdha is behind the killing of her husband.

    Protesters at Bardo likewise told Al Jazeera that carloads of Ennahdha supporters have been paying frequent visits to their protest site and trying to intimidate them.

    Rahoui says whatever the future brings, the opposition is committed to expressing its dissent peacefully and is not aimed at wiping Ennahdha out from political life.

    "Absolutely, there will be a place for them in the parliament," he said. "The important thing is that they respect democracy and allow for a culture of democracy to take root in Tunisia."

    Moving past ideology

    When the country rushed to its first democratic elections in October 2011, Ennahdha was the most organised and best-funded opposition party, and enjoyed high popularity for its years of resistance to former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's authoritarian regime.

    While Ennahdha undoubtedly retains a strong support base, its time in power has taken a toll on its popularity.

    In the latest sign of Tunisia's worsening economic situation, Standard & Poor's rating agency downgraded long-term debt issued by the country by two notches on Friday, citing its concern that political instability will leave the country unable to respect its obligations.

    Al Jazeera interviews Tunisia's president Moncef Marzouki

    An opinion poll released by Gallup on Friday shows the economic situation is having a direct impact on everyday life, with twice as many Tunisians saying they are finding it difficult or very difficult to get by compared to 2010.

    "They were elected because people thought the Islamists would be capable of bringing us equality," said Raouf Kaabachi, a construction worker from the southern town of Gafsa who is among the protesters camped outside the Tunisian parliament in Bardo. "But the government has failed. They didn't deliver their promises."

    Kaabachi is far from alone in his views. The Gallup poll showed approval of national leadership fell dramatically from 60 percent in May 2012 to 23 percent by March 2013.

    Adel Basset Belhassen, president of the Arab Institute of Human Rights, told Al Jazeera the economic and security situation in Tunisia was concerning, and that it was essential to move past the ideological deadlock in order to achieve the next step in the country's democratic transition.

    "The Tunisian people revolted because they wanted social justice, employment, and an end to inequalities between the regions," he said. "I think the political elite's failure to tackle these issues has led to this crisis."

    In Belhassan's view, the formation of a non-partisan government as proposed by the UGTT was the only way to carry the country through to its first parliamentary and presidential elections. "How can we have elections in a situation of economic, political and social crisis, and in a climate of violence?" he asked.

    "What is unique about the Tunisian revolution was that it was pacifist and based around civic slogans. Now Tunisia needs to revisit these slogans, and break out of the spiral of violence and ideological division."

    Follow Yasmine Ryan on Twitter: @YasmineRyan

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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