Tunisia’s illusive concord: A year on from the October 23 elections

A stalling transition in a post-Ben Ali democracy is slowly starting to tear at the edges of Tunisian politics.

Tunisia's leading Islamist party Ennahda has agreed that the next president will be elected by the people through universal suffrage [AFP]

While a sense of concord has almost been forgotten, permanent discord threatens to plunge the Arab Spring’s birthplace into the unknown. The revolution is forgotten. In particular, it is forgotten as the Tunisian people’s gift to the current polity.

The political elites, Islamists and secularists, have thus far failed to take advantange of such a gift, and shoulder the responsibility in translating it into dividends of dignity and freedom.

Tunisia’s version of the Arab Spring began with a big bang, an act of self-immolation. Today, failed politicians, half politicians, and apprentice decision-makers all risk throwing the revolution up in smoke. The signs thus far are of an experiment teetering on the brink of failure: Increasing acts of violence (including burning of an American school in September) and counter-violence, internal discord, partisan meltdown, behind-schedule democratic transition, and political incompetence. The rise of the Salafis, now rightly legalised as a party, introduces a new dynamic, often complicating matters further.

More than ever before, the spirit of October 23 – Tunisia’s first rendezvous with democratic initiation in 2011, following the country’s first post-Ben Ali polls – beckons.  

Where is Tunisia heading? This is the question for which Tunisians are getting no answers.

Myths and realities of October 23

It was the day of ink. The writing with which Tunisians stamped a second era of dignifying and liberating republicanism – on par with the mantra of the January 14 Revolution: karamah (dignity) and hurriyyah (freedom). They voted to endorse the revolution – to rationalise it, as it were.

 Clashes between rival Tunisian parties

It was the passions unleashed on that day, as in the momentous life-changing days of December 2010 and January 2011, that were on display to the world: A people re-enacted its sovereignty by delegating its representatives, convincing and unconvincing, to do the right thing, nursing the revolution they were entrusted with to democratic fruition.

Tunisians are still waiting for such fruition. They are a patient people. They do not, however, wait for ever, as Ben Ali “understood”; it was too little, too late.

The beginning was smooth, orderly, consensual, legal – rational every step of the way. The troika (pilloried power-sharing), the interim rules of engagement, the processes, the Constituent Assembly, the consecutive administrations, the new prisoner-cum-ruler class, and the Islamist-secularist synergy all seemed congenial to upholding the mantra of revolutionary Tunisia: Consensual and consociational institution-building geared towards the people’s demands for freedom and dignity.

That spirit with which Tunisia “pioneered” democratisation of the Arab Spring may be dissipating, and at the time of writing, October 23 is looking not to be celebrated as a historical bright spot of stick-taking and recharging the political batteries for the challenges lying ahead along the arduous, complex and long democratic route. Rather, it looks as though it is a time to contest the legitimacy of their political foes, Islamists or secularists.

In fact, some have planned strikes to cripple all movement and functional capacity to drive home the message that the time is up for those in power. Why? They claim that the government has no legitimacy beyond October 23. In the original plan, the transition was to take no longer than one year, when the constitution-framing would have been concluded.

Constitution-framing is not cake-baking, which can be timed to the last second. And despite, gross incompetence, the Islamists were not oppressors; they were oppressed. Likewise, for the Islamists, a degree of compromise is in order: The former ruling party members regrouping under the newly-formed under “Nida Tunis” (Tunisia Call) are largely victims, and to ban a legal party formed after the revolution is to subvert the new and fragile democratic paradigm.

The end of legitimacy?

In theory, on October 23, 2012, the Constituent Assembly’s mandate ends. However, one thing should not end: The capacity for consensus-building, using political channels to bargain and compromise, and to shun dialogue, regardless of its promoters. In particular, Ennahda’s boycott of the recent dialogue organised by General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) was ill-advised.

Given the poor record of its achievements in power, Ennahda should have thrown its lot behind it – to send messages to all that it is still a voice of reason, and committed to consensus-building. Right now, there is no alternative to the skill to parley as the country continues to backslide towards discord and uncertainty.

Three fault-lines are at the core of the unfurling sclerosis.

1) Pre-revolution vs post-revolution

Tunisia’s current polity – Islamist and secularist, leftist, liberal, or illiberal – is dogged by paralysis. The paralysis of power is partly explicable by the polity constructed in the pre-revolution period: Claimants of “modernisation” and the voices and discourses of indigeneity, which favoured, at some time or another, Islamic values, Arabic, and even Pan-Arabism.

In one sense, none of these outlooks fully prevailed or fully dissolved. However, Bourguibists were able to control the state. To an extent, what the late Bourguiba engineered amounted to quasi “revolution”, socially reconstructing society into the image of European modernism, with some notable success in education, de-tribalisation of society, and gender relations.

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At the level of the state, the question was settled – through a combination of coercive and distributive mechanisms. Through corporatism and dirigisme, civil society, especially trade unions were more or less co-opted. Even here society created openings for unshackling itself from state control. The late Habib Ashour was a hero: The first to cause cracks in the hegemon of the Bourguibist state.

And with political imagination and moral courage, another icon of the 1980s, the most liberal manifestation of politics anywhere in the Arab Middle East, Ahmad Mistiri factionalised Bourguiba’s ruling party, splitting away to form the Socialist Democratic Movement. Elsewhere in society, the Tunisian Human Rights League joined in this imaginative phase of political regeneration. Mosques started to speak aloud, and the nucleus of Islamism was sown. The student movement – which was under a state of permanent siege that only got worse when Ben Ali took power in the late 1980s – bubbled with politics. The press, through Al-Ra’y (The Opinion) and Al-Sha’b (The People), flourished.

Dictatorship was put on notice. Tunisia was ready then for political reform as a kind of parity between state and society. The state hit back, eventually backsliding after the bread riots of the 1980s into political inertia. However, campus politics embodied the early divisions: Ruling party factions against factions from the various non-ruling parties struggling for visibility. More importantly, the most conspicuous battle lines were drawn between the Islamists and the secularists, including the leftists.

Twenty years of authoritarian rule under Ben Ali has not effaced that legacy. The seeds of discord visible today in Tunisia were sown in the pre-revolutionary authoritarian period. Ben Ali’s authoritarian rule simply unified otherwise diametrically opposed voices, forces and discourses against a single symbol of political hegemony. The actual intellectual armour of each, leftists, Islamists, pan-Arabists, and Bourguibists remained intact.

Once freed of their common oppressor – like gladiators, each retrieving the armour of past battles – take to the arena with the same intent of eliminating the adversary. Politics does not have to be a battlefield – beyond the agreed rules of engagement allowing for contests and counter-contests through ballots, not bullets. 

2) Power vs opposition

Neither those in power have mastered the psychology governance nor have those in opposition grasped changed times when power is earned through democratic elections – not inherited. This applies to those parties who were used to an uncontested power status.

The history of oppression hit Ennahda more than any other political group in Tunisia, both under Ben Ali and his predecessor, Bourguiba. The forces of the left represent another group for which the ousted police state meted out exclusion and punishment. The result is tragic: Nearly 30,000 of Ennahda’s members are victims of the previous era. Some were saved from languishing further in jails only by the grace of the January 14 revolution. Some entered prison in the prime of their lives only to walk out in their forties – uneducated, unskilled, un-prepared for the travails of modern life in a highly computerised age.

This includes the incumbent prime minister, Hammadi Jabali, and a few of his ministers. Jabali is one of the rare Tunisians who does not want power and is happy to walk out of the job. He will live with the trauma of incommunicado detention for the rest of his life. No amount of political power will ever compensate him for the loss and trauma inflicted on him.

His case is in the thousands. Why mention this? There is a hardening Ennahda constituency that takes of lots of skill by the party’s president, Rachid Ghannouchi, and the elder statesmen within the Islamist group to control. Nida Tunis, psychologically, poses a problem for this huge constituency of Nahda victims: Seeing whom they perceive to be former oppressors regain power. Even the dialogue organised by the UGTT was partly boycotted due to pressure from this constituency. Note that Ennahda is a democratic party and it is not a one-man show led by Ghannouchi. The hardening of stance towards

Partly, the incompetence and lack of skills found in Ennahda are owed to this dark past of Ben Ali’s Tunisia. Despite effective organisation, publicity and better financial resources than other parties, Ennahda began its governance with little confidence, and no experience. The modest resources given to those at the helm left little manoeuvring room to tackle the huge problems at hand.

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Plus, Ennahda has no vision, and is yet to develop one: It made early on the mistake of excluding the likes of Kamal Jendoubi, Kamal La’bidi, and Eyadh bin Ashour, basically the very secularists who took part in the midwifery of Tunisia’s democratic birth. Last week’s decision by Ennahda and its partners to reinstate the Electoral Commission and its former chief is a good step in the right direction. The same goes for tackling the UGTT, which is something that requires compromise, not escalation. It is a heavyweight potentially, but one that needs to clean its own act – especially in terms of corruption.

Ennahda’s partners are no different. Of the two, Ettakatol’s Mustafa bin Ja’afar and the Republican Congress’s Moncef Marzouki, the former is more able in looking the part, at ease with power, and for many Tunisians, he fits the image of a statesman. Marzouki, by contrast, straddles the terrain of the intellectual-activist, with his advisors showing more knack for public seminars and lectures than policy-making.

Similarly, the opposition is clumsy and partly suffers from an Ennahda-in-power “complex”. It does little opposition, and in consortium with an atrocious media, engages in useless diatribes against the Islamist party. Its character assassination of those in power has been partly responsible for the state of heightened tension in the country. Regardless of how Nida Tunis performs in the next elections, recruiting the octogenarian, Beji Caid Sebsi, to preside over it is an act of desperation. New party, new blood, new idea: It is the only recipe for revolutionary Tunisia.

The opposition and the UGTT’s latest dialogue initiative was not fully motivated by good will: It sought rewards, which Ennahda and its partners, Ettakatol and Marzouki, rejected outright. The attempt was to broker a new deal, which sidesteps official procedures and existing processes mandated by the October 23 elections. Integral to this was for the opposition to partner with the troika (Ennahda, Ettakatol, Marzouki), which would mean allocation of key ministries to the opposition (Justice, Interior, Premiership, etc).

Partly, there is no opposition in Tunisia. All of the major parties that won close to 20 seats and above in the 2011 elections, have experienced splits, defections, and suffer today from reduced numbers than those with which they entered the Constituent Assembly. This includes Ettakatol and Marzouki’s Republican Congress. Ennahda’s saving grace is its disciplined rank-and-file and deputies. The Popular Petition (Al-‘Areeda Al-Sha’biyyah) has suffered more splits and defections than any other electoral list or party. Nejib Shebbi’s Progressive Democratic Party has witnessed defections too.

Even Ennahda has been subjected to hidden tension between the exiles (the thousands who were lucky to escape Ben Ali’s police state) and the “interns” (those who stayed in Tunisia and suffered imprisonment and marginalisation). Ennahda’s 9th Congress in June 2012 showed the youth faction to be growing eager for self-expression and organisation, even though this was, for now, handled without fractionalisation of the party.

3) A long election

In essence, October 23 has been almost a continuous election campaign. No sooner had the results appeared than all parties started preparing for the post-constitution election, which is now delayed and is not expected to take place, according to the government, until late June 2013. Till constitution-framing is concluded, and the country’s rules of engagement are in place, Tunisia is likely to be subjected to further incoherence and discord in its transition process.

Tunisia is still at the onset of a long process and has lots going for it. However, the political elites must now re-think their strategies and commit, in a spirit of concord, compromise, consensus, and confidence-building, to genuine and sustainable process of political renewal. Without this, the penultimate cries of the likes of Bouazizi will remain unheeded. There are tens of thousands that have Lampedusa on their minds – and failing that, maybe even thinking of another revolution to reclaim their “stolen” one.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).