Tunisia: Still a democratic bellwether

Nahda’s strategy shows political skill – for the first time – and a great deal of revision of past directions.

Moncef Marzouki
When cracks appeared, Moncef Marzouki even went as far as criticising Nahda, publicly revealing "his own fear of monopoly of power by Ghannouchi's Islamists" [AP]

Tunisia’s democratisation process is back on track even if it does not mean the end of polarisation or Islamist-secularist tension.

It is Nahda’s compromise and return to constructive bargain-politics, more than the new government line-up to steer the ship until the next election, that bodes well for re-launching the country’s democratic process. Some work has been done; and much more remains to be realised.

In particular, two agendas currently working in tandem must be stressed: a revamped process with a Neo-Nahda, resolidifying itself as a permanent political pole in Tunisia’s politics; and relaunching democratic transition by putting constitution-framing, institution-building (Elections Committee), elections, and urgently turning attention to the economy to tackle rising unemployment and serious current account deficit.

Neo-Nahda for new Tunisia

The void left by Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali’s departure has shaken Tunisia’s political elite into a scramble for answers and solutions to the deadly impasse engulfing the birthplace of the Arab Spring.

Primarily, the crisis has served as a wake-up call for the Islamist Nahda party. Whatever happens from this moment on, Nahda will never be the same again. In its search for a solution to the impasse, the seeds of a new Nahda are being sown. 

Talking to friends within the party reveals the level of both the tendency to remain unitary whilst diffuse, coherent but diverse, and disciplined and centralised but without undermining pluralist rules of engagement.

The party’s 130-member Consultative Council has met numerous times to discuss how to move forward, and keep the rank-and-file on side and its views represented. And right now moving forward means the following:

1. Safeguarding Nahda’s unity.

2. Preparing the party for the next elections.

3. Committing to troika multilateralism in managing the current political crisis and undertaking duties of a “caretaker” government with full responsibility.

4. Making Nahda a permanent factor in the equation of Tunisia’s democratic transition. A healthy and strong Nahda, the reasoning goes, in a political landscape noted for weak parties, enhances the chances of democratic transition. 

5. Work to quell political unrest and tension through compromise.

However, Nahda has not reached this new thinking without massive revision, primarily of its mistakes and blunders – something yet to be undertaken by its competitors, including Nida Tunis. In particular, Nahda is paying less attention to short-term gains and has its eyes set on the democratic process as a whole. The new government line-up reveals the adoption of bargain-politics and compromise – which I shall return to below.

Towards bargain-politics

This brand of crisis management was displayed by Nahda in January before Jebali’s resignation. In fact, on January 25, Nahda’s Consultative Council backed a motion by the outgoing prime minister for a cabinet reshuffle to expand the coalition and, amongst other things, to give up key ministries, including the Foreign Ministry, which Nahda’s troika partners insistently demanded. 

 Inside Story – Tunisia at a crossroads

The discussion then involved many and was not at all against openness to key leaders now-turned “morbid” foes, such as Nejib Chebbi. The reasoning was correct and Nahda knew it was bargaining from a position of strength. It is still the only political party with a permanent constituency. The party’s fixed power base will not in any future elections, at least in the foreseeable future, be affected by its under-performance in government.

Nahda would still receive comfortably – and it will – 40 per cent of the public vote, depending of course on what kind of Election Law is devised for the next poll. Nida Tunis, by contrast, may not be more than a passing political fad – which for many Tunisians might be identified as the equivalent of Egypt’s folool – remnants of Bin Ali’s Democratic Constitutional Rally.

At best, Nida Tunis would collect 20 to 25 per cent of the vote – and many give it half of that proportion. Regardless, the process is still ongoing and there are several months before such a poll is held. It is early day to dismiss Nida Tunis so easily. 

Nahda’s troika partners the enfeebled Republican Congress Party – CPR – (Moncef Marzouki and co) and Mustafa bin Ja’far’s Ettakatol which are looking at 12 to 15 per cent of the vote each.

In theory, the troika could be replicated after the general elections to be held when the constitution is passed. In practice, new dynamics will emerge and Nahda is bound to lose at least one of the partners, depending on whom it endorses as president, Marzouki or bin Ja’far – or field its own candidate if its share of the popular vote is high in the next elections.

That would not, in the long run, be a bad outcome for Tunisian democratisation as it may force an Ettakatol-CPR coalition with a measurable share of the popular vote, enough to act as a countervailing force to keep Nahda in check. However, this is unlikely as the ambition to be president will push the two parties and leaders apart before, potentially, pulling them together in the direction of partnership.

The new government line-up

It is a win-win outcome, even if the array of figures featuring in this government may at face value inspire little confidence. Some are chosen for being “technocrats”; others are there as part of the carving of the cake of government posts. However, the parties and coalitions that have been left out – especially Nida Tunis who are unacceptable to the constituencies of both Nahda and the CPR – will continue to sling mud at Ali Larayedh’s government.

I think Nida Tunis, amongst others, are underestimating how much damage they are sustaining for being too “black-and-white”, rejecting all things “Nahda”, “Salafist” or “Islamist”. Nahda, through compromise, has retracted from this type of “cheap” politics.

The new government line-up is proof of the good will and compromise invested into the process of selecting various people and matching them to relevant portfolios – on top of the partisan trade-offs as in all political bargains.

Nahda’s strategy shows political skill – for the first time – and a great deal of revision of past directions.

The opposition has generally aimed to undermine the troika as one route of isolating Nahda and shaking its confidence. To an extent, the last few months were a huge “test” for the solidity of the governing coalition. Cracks appeared, and Marzouki even went as far as criticising Nahda, publicly revealing his own fear of monopoly of power by Ghannouchi’s Islamists. Through the new government line-up Nahda pulled the rug from underneath the opposition, making concessions which were not feasible several months ago.

The concessions: Nahda gives up three key cabinet posts in the new ministry. The Foreign Ministry now goes to a career diplomat (Othman Jerandi). The opposition zealously used Rafik Abdessalem, Ghannouchi’s son-in-law and Jerandi’s predecessor, as an axe to grind. Ghannouchi has cleverly risen to the occasion and probably righted a political “blunder”, which cost him quite dearly in terms of judgment. 

“Even amongst its own members of government Nahda has tried to share the cake widely, creating internal ‘competition’ for portfolios still retained.”

The Interior Ministry, which is a kind of poisoned chalice, symbolic of “control”, has drawn all kinds of criticism by the opposition against Larayedh’s handling of protests, the Salafists and the US Embassy fiasco in September 2012, which could have been worse in terms of fatalities and damage to American-Tunisian relations.

Nahda now passes on the poisoned chalice to others. Reason? Nahda is capitalising, and already preparing for, excellent results in the next elections. It has given up this ministry in order to avoid accusations of rigging the next polls.

The same, to an extent, applies to the Justice Ministry. Distribution of these ministries to partners has produced a win-win effect, and restoring trust in the Islamist party as a key player but not one motivated by the lurks and perks of office.

Even amongst its own members of government Nahda has tried to share the cake widely, creating internal “competition” for portfolios still retained. Jebali, the outgoing PM, and Mohamed bin Salem, Minister for Agriculture, were Larayedh’s competitors.

Jebali, of course, would have none of it. Abdellatif Al-Mekki, considered one of the most competent Nahda ministers in charge of Health, and Moncef Ben Salem, in charge of Higher Education, are kept for satisfaction with performance.

There were also individuals who made concessions to ease the Islamist party into the democratic transition phase. Lotfi Zitoun gave up his post as adviser. Like many others, he is of the view that now it is a “phase of going back to the basics of politics: returning to the people for endorsement of the democratic transition through rising to the challenges of the constitution, then new parliament, and only after that Tunisians will get the first government of the people”.

Another friend from the political class concurs: “Nothing beats the prize of giving Tunisia a democracy to properly thank the people for the gift of revolution.”

Democratic transition: ‘Take 2’

There have been gains in Tunisia. Through disagreements, controversies and blunders, the new phase, once the government is fully endorsed and up and running, will usher a new realism – a wake-up call – to all that what counts right now is not how the parties fare out through mutual exclusion and black-and-white reasoning. Rather, it is the ethical toolkit of civic commitment to the service of Tunisia and its quest for a democratic order.

The new political elites must shift emphasis from pursuit of power-grabbing and short-term gain to long-term quest for democratisation and economic reconstruction – with stress on good governance and Millennium Development Goals, so far ignored despite absence of a political vision.

That is an end and a cause in itself and right now Nahda has made the first move in the right direction via compromise; it is compromise and the art of bargain-politics that its foes must grasp from the exercise of the past several weeks… when Tunisia momentarily stopped to presage how the Arab Spring can let freedoms bloom… and democratic identities blossom.

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).