What’s the issue? As the seventh anniversary of the 2011 Tunisian uprising approaches, the country is drifting back toward its old authoritarian reflexes. Much of this is due to the failure of nationalist and Islamist partners in Tunisia’s coalition government to implement the January 2014 constitution.
Why does it matter? The authoritarian drift is accompanied by nostalgia for ex-President Ben Ali’s misrule. Tunisia has a special responsibility to stand up to this tendency, to avoid new jihadist violence, to prevent a return to political polarisation and to sustain its role as the sole Arab state sticking to a peaceful, more democratic course since the 2011 Arab Uprisings.
What should be done? To prevent potential violence, Tunisia’s leaders need to go forward, not backwards. They must refocus on strengthening institutions, the creation of a Constitutional court, the setting up of independent oversight bodies and the holding of much-delayed local elections in 2018.
The ongoing efforts to maintain the parliamentary and government coalition be-tween the nationalist Nida Tounes and the Islamist An-Nahda are delaying the implementation of Tunisia’s constitution and weakening its institutions. As the economy falters, nostalgia is spreading for a strong state modelled on the former regime. But to strengthen the state and respond to unexpected turns of events, such as new large-scale jihadist attacks, out-of-control protests or the temporary or permanent absence of the president, the country must consolidate its institutions by respecting and implementing its constitution. The current drift toward authoritarianism has little chance of successfully establishing a Ben Ali-style regime, given the many socio-economic and political divisions and the newfound freedom enjoyed by the media over the past seven years. Any attempt to recreate an atmosphere of fear among the population would meet with fierce resistance. The government would not become any more effective and suppressed conflicts would end up resurfacing in more violent forms.
Since the legislative and presidential elections of late 2014, the parliamentary and government coalition led by Nida Tounes and An-Nahda has greatly alleviated political polarisation. But these two pivotal parties must surmount a number of challenges if they are to keep their coalition alive. As former enemies turned partners, they are struggling to conserve their political identity and internal cohesion; conflicts surface in line with the strengthening or weakening of their respective powers of negotiation within the partnership. The resulting tensions, against a backdrop of mutual mistrust, are contributing to an indefinite postponement of the reforms promised by the constitution: the establishment of a new Constitutional court, independent constitutional authorities, elected regional councils and increasing parliamentary autonomy.
Conversely, when the coalition is faring well, Nida Tounes and An-Nahda seek a political duopoly to the detriment of the parliament’s autonomy and existing independent administrative institutions. Rached Ghannouchi, An-Nahda’s president, and Béji Caïd Essebsi, the head of state and founder of Nida Tounes, who continues to stand in occasionally as party leader, are personalising the channels of political debate and crisis management. Essebsi in particular is presidentialising the regime and legitimising voices calling for amendments to the 2014 constitution to expand his prerogatives.
Meanwhile, the implementation of essential aspects of the 2014 constitution continues to face delays. The Constitutional court, designed to play a crucial role in case of a political and institutional crisis, has not yet been set up. The independent authorities embodying the principles of integrity, impartiality and neutrality, conceived in the afterglow of the 2010-2011 uprising to address the public administration’s problems, are still non-existent, and the independent administrative bodies that have been established lack any real autonomy. Municipal elections likely to test the coalition (depending on the two dominant parties’ performance at the ballot box, abstention levels, and the possible emergence of new political forces) and significantly increase the number of elected representatives have been postponed four times. The decentralisation process has become bogged down: it should have led to the election of regional councils, but politicians and high-level public officials fear that it will weaken central government.
As the gap widens between constitutional principles and the current political reality, any discussion of constitutional amendments – as proposed by the head of state with the support of a number of political figures – would lead to a resumption of antagonisms at a time when support is growing for authoritarian regimes both in Tunisia and around the world. Opposition by the Islamist party (the main parliamentary grouping) to all constitutional amendments that question the regime’s parliamentary nature would trigger a more violent polarisation than that seen in 2013. If it agrees to changes, the centralisation of power in the hands of the presidency could significantly harden the regime and create more problems than solutions. It is not worth opening this Pandora’s box.
Tunisia is entering a period of electoral uncertainty, with municipal elections scheduled for 2018, and legislative and presidential elections for 2019. The current coalition, which theoretically could cede its place to a new majority, should accelerate the reforms planned as part of the constitution, while improving conditions for a peaceful handover of political power. It remains essential to:
hold municipal elections in 2018 and, in the short term, to ensure the proper functioning of the Independent High Electoral Commission (ISIE), responsible for organising these elections, as well as the legislative and presidential elections in 2019;
set up the Constitutional court as soon as possible;
create fully empowered independent constitutional authorities;
and increase parliament’s financial and administrative autonomy.
Tunis/Brussels, 11 January 2018
An-Nahda and Nida Tounes: Cooperation in Competition
In February 2015, a number of Nida Tounes militants and voters viewed the establishment of a coalition with the Islamist party An-Nahda as a betrayal, which, in their eyes, was incompatible with the identity of their political group. Initially, this weakened Nida Tounes, which split into two factions competing to control the party. On the one hand, there was the anti-Islamist-leaning faction led by Mohsen Marzouk, the electoral campaign manager of the president of the republic and leader of Nida Tounes, Béji Caïd Essebsi, who had been promoted to the post of minister-counsellor to the president at the beginning of January 2015. On the other, Hafedh Béji Caïd Essebsi, the president’s son, led the other faction, which supported both the alliance and consensus with the Islamist group.The party’s officials joined the latter group, believing that the president had broken his word by excluding them from the executive power.
In January 2016, the latter faction won the struggle, resulting in the division of Nida Tounes, the departure of Mohsen Marzouk – who then founded his own breakaway political group (Machrou Tounes – Project for Tunisia) – and weaker political clout in Parliament for Nida Tounes, dropping from 89 MPs at the beginning of 2015 to 56 at the end of 2017.
Unlike Nida Tounes, An-Nahda was not divided by its entry into the coalition, even historic splits resurfaced. Internal dissent increased as a result of its efforts to make its image more compatible with the “secularist” identity of the alliance, particularly under the influence of regional and international trends that were unfavourable to political organisations borne of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. An-Nahda was compelled to make a greater number of concessions than Nida Tounes and to demonstrate its loyalty to its coalition partner more actively. This generated numerous conflicts in the party, taking up both the time and energy of most of its officials.
In May 2016, during its 10th congress, An-Nahda adopted a new strategy, bringing the party’s focus onto strictly political activities (ie on gaining power and exercising it), and theoretically delegating its cultural, social and religious activities to a series of associations loosely connected to its political core. The party stepped up the number of declarations it made concerning its move away from political Islam, its “separation of politics and religion” and its shift away from the “Islamist” label, adopting instead that of “Muslim democrats”.
In order to make joint work at the Assembly and Council of Ministers easier, the Islamist party’s leaders handed higher-ranking posts in the party and government to more discreet and consensual activists over historic militants. The grassroots felt marginalised and constantly denounced the leadership’s frequently authoritarian attitude, its downplaying of the Islamist identity of the party, its subordinate stance to Nida Tounes and its eager engagement – and in some cases, collaboration – with representatives of the old regime who had been involved in the eradication of the party during the first half of the 1990s.
The memory of ideological confrontations and repression between Islamists and anti-Islamists has fuelled the fears shared by both main parties of the coalition. In Nida Tounes, high-profile activists and intellectuals from the Arab nationalist far-left or from the Democratic Constitutional Rally (“RCD”, former President Ben Ali’s dissolved party), who had experienced the radical Islamist and “fundamentalist” period of An-Nahda during the 1980s, have fed these concerns. In An-Nahda, the trauma of mass arrests and torture – backed or endorsed at the time by individuals who are now members of Nida Tounes – is still very vivid, particularly among grassroots militants.
These mutual preoccupations resurface dramatically whenever one or the other party increases its negotiating power in the coalition. Any imbalance of power between the two political organisations fuels the (often irrational) fear of a collapse of the alliance. Moreover, each party’s negotiating power – based on their respective electoral weight – varies depending on sudden incidents that disrupt the coalition’s normal operation.
Thus, whenever a jihadist attack hits the country (as occurred three times in 2015), Islamist and anti-Islamist polarisation plays out in the media landscape, although ordinary citizens pay much less attention to it than they did during the second half of 2013. An-Nahda has fewer relays in the press than the anti-Islamists (far-left, Arab nationalists, Nida Tounes dissidents or even members of said party) do. With the backing of supporters of the coalition who are influential in the media, it has nonetheless managed to dampen the aftershock of every attack, countering accusations of laxity or even complicity with jihadist violence under the Troika (2011-2014), thus demonstrating the coalition’s ability to reduce polarisation.
However, every campaign that accuses the Islamist party of bearing responsibility for jihadist violence puts it on the defensive. An-Nahda’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi, then taps into the fears of its grassroots militants to justify the need for the alliance, which “protects the existence of the party”, as well as the support for President Essebsi’s initiatives, presented as the last remaining bulwark against those wishing to eradicate the party.
It is true that An-Nahda benefits from the lack of internal consistency and repeated crises in Nida Tounes, and sometimes even contributes covertly to them. Thus, at the beginning of 2016, the resignation of 22 members of Nida Tounes (out of a total of 86) from the party and parliamentary bloc caused it to lose its majority to An-Nahda at the Assembly (69 members). In the wake of this event, Ghannouchi, invited to the Nida Tounes congress, took the floor and compared Tunisia to a bird, with An-Nahda and Nida Tounes acting as its wings.
Yet, despite the fact that An-Nahda’s leverage within the alliance nominally increased, it is limited by criteria defined by Essebsi in agreement with Ghannouchi, who “constantly fears that the head of state will turn against him”, as an opposition party official from Ettayar (“Democratic Current”) concluded. As its support from abroad seemed weak, An-Nahda has opted to protect its nepotistic and regionalist balance with the non-Islamist political forces, which provided it with a minority position in trade bodies, trade unions, the security forces, banking institutions, public enterprises and private oligopolies.
An-Nahda’s leadership is indeed heavily affected by the degradation of the international and regional context for all political groups born of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. The election of Donald Trump in the U.S.; changes in the military balance in Libya, which had shifted to Field Marshall Haftar, supported by the United Arab Emirates and Egypt; the ‘wait-and-see’ stance of Turkey and Algeria, both focused on their domestic issues; and the diplomatic and economic offensive against Qatar, a close ally of the Islamist party, are just a few examples of these unfavourable geopolitical reconfigurations. Combined with national political constraints, these prevented An-Nahda from fully benefiting from Nida Tounes’ weaknesses, making that the party’s bargaining power remain below its electoral and political weight in the alliance.
Despite their rivalry, as pivotal parties in the coalition, Nida Tounes and An-Nahda have sometimes acted as a duopoly. On several occasions, Ghannouchi supported the draft law of the president of the republic on economic and financial reconciliation, despite vivid criticism against the bill. In some municipalities, the two parties defined their polling lists so as to ensure only one of the two parties would win. They agreed to support a single independent list and in 2016, they discussed the option of openly establishing joint electoral lists.
In addition, the two groups distribute posts in regional and local administrations (which are strategic in terms of patronage for the following electoral cycle) among themselves. Thus, at the end of 2017, three quarters of the country’s governors and delegates were either members or supporters of Nida Tounes. The rest was shared by An-Nahda activists or supporters, and to a lesser degree, independents and members of the main trade union confederation, the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT). The two parties also place loyal supporters at the head of public and semi-public companies and institutions, including at the public broadcasting service, where Nida Tounes and An-Nahda share the management of the various channels and are consequently able to influence their agenda.
A.Reforms Adjourned Sine Die
The tensions at the heart of the coalition and its component parties is significantly slowing down the implementation of reforms set forth in the constitution, thus weakening state institutions. Moreover, the bolstering of conditions for rotation of power is a laborious exercise for both parties in the coalition due to a lack of mutual trust.
The parties struggled to set up the legal and institutional framework for the organisation of the upcoming electoral cycle (Electoral Law and Independent High Authority for Elections – ISIE). Indeed, they were, and still are, worried that as a result, their current partner will become their enemy, forming a majority and excluding them. An-Nahda supporters often feel concerned that Nida Tounes, by gaining power alone, would corner them into an opposition role and gradually erode its influence in collaboration with the security forces (in large part anti-Islamist). On the other hand, many Nida Tounes militants are preoccupied that An-Nahda will impose its ideological hegemony on a readily conservative Tunisian society and that it will disturb the socio-economic balance between the various regions of the country to the benefit of the emerging elite, namely from the south of the country.
The disputes between An-Nahda and Nida Tounes have contributed to blocking the establishment of the Constitutional court, a pivotal institution in the event of a major crisis. The parliamentary majority has failed to strike a compromise on the nomination of four of its members to the Assembly and has been unable to elect the president of the High Judicial Council (CSM), entrusted with the selection of another four members. The Provisional Authority for the Review of the Constitutionality of Draft Laws is currently fulfilling the main role of the future Constitutional court, but it does not hold the court’s other prerogatives, which are fundamental in exceptional cases, ie, terminating the president’s term of office as a result of a clear violation of the constitution, arbitration in cases of conflicts of competences between heads of state and government, and determining the provisional or definitive vacancy of the post of president of the republic.
Partisan friction has also contributed to delay the vote on the electoral law for municipal elections, initially scheduled for the end of 2016 but repeatedly postponed. Negotiations on the next regional council elections, aimed at pushing forward the decentralisation process, have also been adjourned sine die. A number of non-Islamist politicians and higher officials fear this process, believing that the central powers are too weak to support it.
The local elections are politically important, which explains the disputes that they generate. In addition to strengthening democratic processes locally by significantly increasing the number of elected officials (approximately 7,150 in the entire republic), they may have a significant impact on the coalition members’ negotiating powers. If An-Nahda wins a high number of municipalities, it could request a ministerial reshuffle that would better correspond to its new electoral weight.
Moreover, these elections would enable the winning parties to consolidate their patronage networks, and consequently their voter base, in order to fare better in the national election cycle at the end of 2019 (parliamentary and presidential elections). To be sure, they will not be able to launch true local development policies, due to the lack of financial autonomy and chronic shortage of means in the municipalities. But they could, for example, make use of the former RCD networks that are very powerful in rural areas, provide social housing and lease municipal farming land to their supporters or approve urban planning projects that raise the value of the surrounding land in their favour.
In February 2017, an increase in the belief that Nida Tounes and several peripheral parties could win the elections in a large number of municipalities, as well as the reiteration of Algeria’s support of a “reconciliation” and “consensus” in Tunisia, permitted the adoption of the electoral law organising the municipal elections. The disputes then shifted to the control of the management of the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE). In May 2017, this pushed the ISIE’s president, Chafik Sarsar, to resign, which he attributed to excessive political pressure.His post remained vacant until 14 November 2017, date on which the Assembly elected a new and more consensual president, Mohamed Tlili Mansri.
Consequently, in September 2017, the local elections were adjourned once more. An-Nahda accepted this, despite the discontent of its grassroots militants who had invested a great deal in the elections with the consent of their leaders, and the party even requested another adjournment to the ISIE with Nida Tounes in December 2017.
Even if, officially, these adjournments were encouraged by smaller political parties who argued that the “Code of Local Authorities defining the mission and prerogatives of the future municipalities” had not yet been adopted and that the ISIE had no president, unofficially, the fact that An-Nahda was the favourite party was decisive. The Islamist party was indeed the only one that had been able to complete its lists before the December 2017 deadline scheduled in April 2017. It presented candidates in the 350 municipalities of the country, managing to respect diversity criteria set forth in the electoral law. “Even Nida Tounes wasn’t able to do so”, stated a party supporter.
B.Partisan Control of the Independent Administrative Bodies
An-Nahda and Nida Tounes are also distorting the roles of independent administrative bodies by placing their candidates there, who then defend partisan interests, giving fodder to criticism from the opposition parties and civil society, which claim there is a “return to authoritarianism”. Indeed, the constitution sets forth the creation of five independent constitutional bodies to uphold the principles of integrity, impartiality and neutrality that, in the aftermath of the 2010-2011 uprising, most political forces believed to be the antidotes against the ills of the public administration.
Three provisional bodies founded in 2011 are already operational: the Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE), the Independent High Authority for Audiovisual Communication (HAICA) and the National Authority for the Fight against Corruption (INLUCC). In 2011, in a revolutionary move, the two first administrative bodies were able to attack the foundation of two of the authoritarian regime’s pillars: the organisation of elections by the interior ministry at the service of the ruling party and the strict control of the media by the regime. Over time, the parliamentary majorities of the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) and of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP) have chipped away at these authorities’ independence, increasing their power over the composition of the bodies, their organisation and their supervision – thus going against the democratic trajectory launched by the departure of Ben Ali, and which the constitution is supposed to uphold.
The three remaining independent administrative bodies set up outside the constitutional framework – the Truth and Dignity Commission (IVD) in charge of the transitional justice process, the Authority for Access to Information and the Authority for the Prevention of Torture (INPT) – have encountered similar problems. In September 2017, in an interview with the Tunisian press, President Essebsi criticised these independent bodies, stating that they represented a threat to “the existence of the state and its cohesion”.
C.An Increasingly Presidential Regime
Though his interventionism, which is incompatible with the spirit of the constitution but in line with his legitimacy as an elected official voted into office by universal suffrage, Essebsi is trying to monopolise the channels of political discussion, which is personalising crisis management mechanisms that are becoming increasingly dependent on his remaining the head of state.
First, he continued to invest himself in his party, Nida Tounes, by playing the role of occasional mediator and increasing internal tensions by promoting the rise of his son in the party. He actively intervened on the balance and operation of the coalition. He took personal initiatives that had not been the object of a prior agreement in order to strengthen the alliance and keep the Islamist party, Nida Tounes’ main electoral opponent, under pressure. He sometimes promoted rivalry between Nida Tounes and An-Nahda by stressing Nida Tounes’ “modernist” political identity, especially in order to prevent a protest vote against these two pillars of the coalition in forthcoming elections.
Even as he defended and promoted the stability of the alliance diplomatically, Essebsi is the instigator of the current national government of unity, which took office at the end of August 2016 and caught all political parties by surprise. This sabotaged the increasingly privileged relations between An-Nahda – which had gained in international credibility after its May 2016 congress – and Habib Essid, head of government at the time.
Because Essid had demonstrated that he could act independently, in line with his constitutional prerogatives (as the top leader of the executive branch), the head of state demanded that he resign. Following the advice of his advisors, Essid sought to respect the provisions of the constitution and requested a parliamentary vote of confidence – which as expected he was not granted. Essebsi then managed to impose a new head of government, Youssef Chahed, a member of Nida Tounes but a rather marginal figure in the party, and exercised considerable influence on the composition of the ministerial cabinet.
Since the first half of 2017, Essebsi is in latent conflict with the new head of government. He has tried to withdraw some of his prerogatives by increasing the power of the National Security Council, which he presides. Chahed had indeed begun creating a new political movement in view of the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2019, positioning himself as the centre of a new political axis that would be able to shift away from political corruption and attract the skills of “technocrats”, while at the same time joining forces with social powers (namely the trade unions). In this way, he hoped to exploit the weaknesses of the coalition and its pivotal parties, which displeased the head of state.
Chahed also took advantage of the arrest of a controversial businessman, Chafik Jarraya, which several Tunisian political analysts have described as one of the main sponsors of Nida Tounes’ political bloc. He thus declared a “war against corruption”, which An-Nahda and Nida Tounes militants say serves his political interests.
Moreover, Essebsi has been holding a rising number of closed meetings with the leaders of the main political powers and trade unions in order to position himself as the sole arbitrator along with Ghannouchi, who does the same on his side. A sociologist has noted that one of the aims is to “make the contents of negotiations less transparent, in order to deflect criticism and to avoid constantly having to justify the usefulness of the alliance or the strategic choices struck in a consensual and discreet manner”.
The search for an upstream compromise between Ghannouchi and Essebsi, and to a lesser extent, between the coalition parties, tends to undermine and weaken the role of the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP). The president of the ARP, Mohamed Ennaceur, member of Nida Tounes, “manages his parliament like a ministry”, noted the manager of an NGO in charge of capacity-building in the Assembly:
The MPs’ interventions are all for show. Laws are adopted with few amendments. The MPs are disillusioned. They get involved in various projects but have no structure. They have no clear idea of their work. The legislative agenda is imposed on them at the last minute, they do not know it. All transactions between political parties are performed at the Consensus Commission.
As a result, despite the democratic atmosphere that the opposition tries to preserve by triggering controversies, the parliament is at risk of becoming a rubber-stamping assembly for pre-arranged political decisions, as was the case under Ben Ali’s regime. Many MPs “change positions after receiving a phone call”, observed a former parliamentary assistant.
For the majority, boosting the role of the Assembly is far from being a priority. On several occasions, Nida Tounes and An-Nahda have struck down the examination of a draft organic law by means of its financial administrative authority, which, according to several experts on parliamentary matters, would have allowed it to obtain the necessary means to operate de facto, in accordance with the constitutional framework. The gap between the constitutional principles drafted in a consensual fashion during the first transitional stage and the reality of the political scene today is becoming more and more obvious.
By under-investing in the strengthening the democratic institutions, the political class is keeping the country in an endless state of transition, which is weakening the state. Essebsi and Ghannouchi, through their numerous secret meetings, are maintaining the coalition and reducing polarisation, but are also personalising the channels for political discussion and crisis management, thus increasing the likelihood of violent conflict if one of them disappear. Even if, in his New Year wishes for 2018, the head of state declared that the Constitutional court would be set up during the year, the absence of this institution – the only one with the power to determine the provisional or definitive vacancy for the post of president of the republic – creates the risk of an unconstitutional transition of presidential power. Such a scenario would strengthen the supporters of an authoritarian restauration.
III.To Establish the Constitution or Rewind?
A.The Dilemma of Political Decision-makers
Political decision-makers face a very delicate problem when doubts appear as to the efficiency of democracy to overcome challenges. At risk of weakening the institutions and losing part of their international legitimacy, they must implement the constitution in accordance with the principles defined by the former parliament. At the same time, in January 2014, the revolutionary wave brought by the so-called “Arab Spring” was receding, the Islamic State had gained phenomenal ground in Syria and Iraq as from 2013, there was a coup in Egypt in July in 2013, and civil war broke out in Libya in July-August 2014.
Simultaneously, political decision-makers must try their best to maintain a coalition which prevents polarisation between “pro-” and “anti-” An-Nahda, but whose current mode of operation is rather opaque and strengthens the opposition of the “revolutionaries” and nostalgia for the authoritarian regime. They must also manage day-to-day security issues, and most especially economic problems that threaten the stability of the country.
Since 2016, the considerable degradation of economic fundamentals has increased the likelihood of uncontrollable riots, meaning that politicians are under pressure to take immediate action. Growth has remained weak (between 1 and 2 per cent). The Tunisian dinar has dropped by one third of its value in a year, without increasing the external competitiveness of national production or narrowing the trade deficit, which continues to rise. Public wages consume practically half the state’s budget, leaving little for development projects. Ordinary citizens suffer from price hikes and experience an inflation rate that is much higher than the official rate of 6.3 per cent. International bodies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have expressed their concern and regularly underscore their discontent at the situation.
Since mid-2017, despite new regional opportunities, entrepreneurs from the established elite have suffered from an increase in tax audits that aim to “obtain revenue for the state coffers at any cost”. Businessmen from the informal economy consider that the war against corruption launched by the head of government in May 2017 is putting them under pressure.
The relentless drop in the standard of living for the middle class is exacerbating tensions within the political parties, especially in An-Nahda, whose grassroot supporters suffer from price increases like any other ordinary citizen. This leads the militants to accuse their leaders of being incapable of improving the situation. Daily hardship, inflation and the relative degradation of public infrastructure (transport, health care, education) which are hitting the working-class areas are giving rise to nostalgia for the 1990s-2000s, ie when Ben Ali was in power, making the citizens more receptive to the nationalistic discourse of some representatives from the old regime. These figures are gaining visibility in the media, and they do not hesitate to equate democracy and the defence of human rights with the weakness of the state, support for jihadist terrorism and Western interference.
B.Reviving an Authoritarian Regime: A Risky and Unrealistic Gamble
The weakening of state institutions lends credence to “anti-Arab Spring” voices which are often nostalgic for the Ben Ali era. They implicitly posit that the only way to save the country is by centralising power and resources in the hands of an empowered executive with a homogenous ideology, and return an all-powerful presidency. Adherents of this reckless backsliding argue that the institutions created following the departure of Ben Ali are artificial, ill-suited to Tunisian political culture, and dysfunctional. From their perspective, the democratic transplant is not taking hold, as shown by the multiplication of centres of power and corruption and useless debates of politicians. This “background noise, according to which democracy is dysfunctional in Tunisia”, as one European diplomat put it, is becoming louder and encouraging some public intellectuals in the media to attack the Tunisian transition as a whole, and particularly the constitution, if only out of populism.
Many politicians and public officials consider that the independent provisional administrative authorities (ISIE, HAICA, INLUCC) are weakening central government. In a sense this is true, if only as they lack the necessary technical and financial means to carry out the monitoring and regulatory duties they are supposed to carry out instead of the regular bureaucracy. As a high-ranking public official explains, echoing Essebsi’s accusation that these bodies pose a threat to “the existence of the state and its cohesion”:
These institutions erode the state’s power. They represent a legal and administrative authority, but in fact they have no independence from the political parties or central government. They have exclusive areas of competence, but lack the means to apply them.
By giving them a legal status that confers on them wide-ranging de jure prerogatives, yet without supporting their actual prerogatives, political decision-makers are undermining public administration. In turn, the latter is refusing to work with these authorities, which then defend their corporatist domain. The situation is comparable to the one paralysing the Assembly of People’s Representatives (ARP), subject to the bills proposed by the executive branch yet the necessary financial and administrative autonomy to achieve its role as enshrined in the constitution.
In the view of some Nida Tounes dissidents and party members, since the current regime operates virtually on a presidential basis, this reality should be reflected in the constitution, as proposed by the head of state, and “move toward a system of majority voting that would have the benefit of a stable majority without needing to resort to a perverse coalition”.
But given the latent polarisation between pro- and anti-An-Nahda factions, opening a debate on amending the constitution would be a risky gambit, creating the possibility that one of these groups will form a majority excluding the other. The constitution’s ambiguity about the prerogatives of the two leaders of the executive can be thought of as a peace treaty between political forces let loose by the 2010-2011 uprising. Attempts to alter it, as one civil society activist put it, “[when] it has not yet been implemented and given that politicians have not given the mixed parliamentary system the means to carry out its work”, may either rekindle ideological conflicts supposedly resolved during the constitutional process (2011-2014), or lead to an increasingly hardline regime.
An-Nahda’s leaders, despite supporting parliamentarianism at the time of drafting of the constitution, are now divided on this issue. Some consider that the regime’s shift toward presidentialism, with all the risks it entails, is already underway and that negotiations are needed to ensure the party has a minority but stable role within an authoritarian regime in the making. An-Nahda would then wait for better days to take its helm, with many expecting that the 2019 presidential elections will be held during this more auspicious period. Others argue that a presidential regime would allow the dominance of a single leader or party over the future Constitutional court and independent constitutional authorities, and this would signal the end of democracy, a red line they say they are willing to cross “even if half of the party were to return to prison”, according to one party member.
For the time being, the political class has not yet succumbed to this authoritarian temptation, observed by many international analysts and criticised as a “restauration” by various civil society activists who often exaggerate the point. Given the various socio-economic, political and administrative rifts, as well as the freedom of expression gained since 2011, reverting to a Ben Ali style regime appears unrealistic. It would imply that a political force or security coalition could lock down the country and reconstruct the system of surveillance and control over the population that rested upon the defunct RCD (the former hegemonic ruling party, dissolved some seven years ago and whose members are now scattered politically) and the now-fragmented interior ministry. For the time being this option remains technically impossible.
In any case, even by expanding the executive branch and resuming an authoritarian regime, Tunisia would by no means overcome the structural security and economic challenges it faces. On the contrary, such a move would further aggravate political and social tensions. Tunisia would enter a spiral of repression intended to reinstate an atmosphere of fear among members of the opposition and civil society. Freedom of expression would be curtailed, making political decision-makers less responsive to large sections of society, lowering quality of life and heightening the sense of socio-regional discrimination and further increasing the likelihood of a revolt against the state.
Reviving an authoritarian regime would also jeopardise the culture of negotiating and searching for peaceful compromise, an approach that has been strengthened since the former regime’s downfall. Even with a strong executive able to take expedient decisions, the result would most probably be to hollow out the reforms to increase the public administration’s efficiency (transparency, responsibility, improved government-citizen relationships). It would also restrict the initiatives and creativity required for business innovation to increase economic competitiveness. Finally, squandering the democratic credibility that Tunisia gained on an international scale would deprive the country of a significant part of the financial and political support it receives from abroad.
Instead of making a futile attempt to recreate the institutions of the former regime, which would be tantamount to adventurism, Tunisia should consolidate its institutions by respecting and implementing its constitution. Even though the post-Ben Ali revolutionary euphoria has worn off and the coalition is spending more time trying to keep itself alive than implementing reforms, the country continues to move forward, albeit in a non-linear fashion.
But for Tunisia to consolidate its transition and prepare itself for unforeseen challenges, the political class should avoid amending the constitution. Instead, it must find the necessary willingness to establish the Constitutional court as soon as possible, increase parliament’s autonomy, set up effective independent constitutional authorities, and hold municipal elections in 2018. Tunisia’s international partners should continue supporting these reforms, which are the only means of bolstering the state and maintaining long-term stability.
(c) 2018 International Crisis Group