Power Struggle in Tunisia

Islamists and secularists wrestle over the new constitution while citizens protest political violence

05/08/2013 five questions to Katrin Sold

Five Questions, July 29, 2013

Category: Government and Society, Democratization/System Change, Near and Middle East/North Africa

Tunesia, cradle of the Arab Spring, remains unsettled. While politicians debate the role of religion in the constitution, the population is venting its discontent over vulnerable social conditions, creeping Islamization, and political violence. The July murder of Mohamed Brahmi, the second prominent opposition politician to die this year, has led to new demonstrations against the regime. The government’s future depends on how vehemently the call for change is articulated on the street.

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Even after the old regime’s fall: demonstrations in Tunis for political freedom

Who were the murdered politicians Mohamed Brahmi and Chokri Belaid and what do we know about their assassins?

Mohamed Brahmi and Chokri Belaid were leading members of the leftist-nationalist opposition party and sharp critics of the ruling Islamist government in Tunisia. Brahmi was also a representative of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA). Both belonged to the NCA’s secular camp. As such, they could well have been seen as enemies either by radical Islamists or by representatives of the regime who want to torpedo the democratic transformative process.

Although the Tunisian ministry of the interior has already blamed a group of radical Islamic terrorists for the assassination, speculation is rampant on the streets of Tunis, in blogs, and on Facebook. A large majority of demonstrators claims that the leading Islamic party, Ennadha, is ultimately responsible for both political murders. People are calling for a transparent investigation into the attacks. While Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahda, clearly distanced himself from the assassinations, the demonstrators are nonetheless accusing him of having up until now stalled a genuine investigation into the February murder of Chokri Belaid.

What is the focus of the current protests?

The mass demonstrations of the past two weeks, particularly those that coincided with Mohamed Brahmis’s funeral on July 27 and the six-month anniversary of Chokri Belaid’s murder on August 6, are directed against the government’s unwillingness to clarify [the murders] and against violence as a mode of political power struggle. Above all, however, the protestors are giving vent to tension that has been building up for months; the cabinet reshuffling that came in response to mass protests following the first assassination in February had failed to disperse that tension. People remain dissatisfied with the way their country has developed since the old regime was toppled. They see no improvement in their economic situation, and no progress in the fight against high unemployment, particularly among the youth.

Moreover, many Tunisians are disenchanted with the constitutional process, which should have been completed in October 2012. They are also unhappy with the chaotic conditions that prevail in the first freely elected body since the fall of the old regime. The constitutional assembly, particularly in its early phase, has been characterized by power struggles, the exits and reshufflings of representatives among parties, and the formations of new factions. And the battle over the direction of the new constitution has proven to be a tough one.

Politically, where do the dividing lines run in the constitutional assembly?

The important points of dispute are the degree of importance accorded to civil liberties, relations between men and women, and the future division of power between the president and the prime minister. At the center of contention, however, is the question of religion’s role in the blueprint for the future state.

Representatives of two obviously contrasting, hard-to-reconcile positions face each other: the Islamists, who won the October 2011 elections clearly with about 40 percent of the votes, and the secular camp, which comes from many varied parties. Both camps have for months been in a bitter struggle over the basic tenets of the new constitution.

The first article of the constitution codifies Islam as the Tunisian national religion. Although the current, fourth, draft of the constitution makes no direct mention of sharia, critics nonetheless see a great deal of room for maneuver, as before, and fear that the new constitution will serve as a basis for encroaching Islamization.

Are there no economic aspects to this political confrontation?

The struggle over the importance of religion and the constitutional configuration of the future Tunisian state has dominated political discourse for months. In contrast, hardly anyone is seeking solutions to the country’s pressing social and economic questions, a fact that is astonishing considering that the fragile economic conditions of many Tunisians and high unemployment rates were among the main reasons for the protests of 2011.

Although every governing party of the future will have to be measured by its successes in this area, the parties have up until now paid amazingly little attention to this subject. Many parties on the left end of the spectrum, and above all the influential general trade union UGTT, have long been embroiled in infighting and have therefore missed the chance to take ownership of the topic.

Only now, slowly, are individual parties beginning to work out economic and social programs. Among these are the social democratic party Ettakatol, which is trying to set the tone in the upcoming elections and win back some of the trust it lost in joining the government with the Islamist party Ennahda.

Can the government hold out until regular elections?

First of all, a new constitution must be adopted before elections can take place. After tough negotiations, the fourth draft has been submitted for approval to the NCA’s plenary assembly. In reaction to Mohamed Brahmi’s murder and the mass demonstrations, however, some 70 representatives from the opposition have withdrawn from the NCA, and the head of the NCA has suspended the assembly’s work until a national dialog is launched.

If the protests go on, one cannot rule out the possibility that the government will fall. The political pressure from the streets could well deepen divisions within the leading coalition and oblige Ennahda’s two coalition partners to exit the governing troika. It is possible that a panel of experts will be named to work on the constitution – and this is what many are demanding on the streets of Tunisia – although the process of having an elected assembly forge the constitution has up until now been seen as a more important step in the process of democratic transformation. While an expert committee could decidedly speed up the constitutional drafting process, there would nonetheless be the question of the committee’s democratic legitimacy.

In addition to this, the opposition is calling for an independent transitional government to be recognized by all sides. One government party, Ettakatol, has openly supported this solution. The Islamist party Ennahda, however, is sticking with the current government (which it leads), though it did announce elections for mid December, in response to the continuing protests. According to current surveys, there is a chance that the new secular party Nidaa Tounes as well as a united opposition on the left may pose a challenge to the Islamists during this election.

Ultimately, however, the government’s future depends on the developments taking place on the streets of Tunisia and the vehemence with which the political demand for change is being articulated. We should at any rate not expect the situation in Tunisia to resemble the Egyptian scenario, with military intervention taking place on the side of the demonstrators. Unlike in Egypt, a former military state, the Tunisian army has traditionally had no role to play in politics.

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