Stemming Tunisia’s Authoritarian Drift

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.

Executive Summary

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