x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

In Tunisia, spirit of the Arab Spring is still alive and well

Ennahda remains a strong force in Tunisia as the Muslim Brotherhood is no longer able to monopolise power and government.

It appears that Tunisians have had enough of the Muslim Brotherhood and want a change in direction in their country.

The Tunisian Muslim Brotherhood party, Ennahda, won the country’s first post-revolution election. After winning, Ennahda formed a coalition government with secular parties and pledged not to attempt to impose their beliefs on Tunisian society. In addition to bringing new prosperity, Tunisians expected that the post-revolution process would start with an elected interim National Constituent Assembly (ANC) that would write a new constitution and prepare for a new election that would usher in a democratic order.

On most counts, the interim government has been deemed a failure. Two and a half years after the revolution, the new constitution has still not been finalised. Nevertheless, the ANC has continued to extend its tenure, with many Tunisians viewing Ennahda as monopolising power. At the same time, extremist currents have become a growing concern, especially after the assassinations of two secular political leaders. Meanwhile, the economy remained weak without the new jobs and opportunities that many had expected.

Growing pressure from the Tunisian public finally forced Ennahda to promise to step down, opening the way to a new interim government and election.

In the period immediately preceding this development, from August 4 to 31, Zogby Research Services (ZRS) surveyed 3,031 Tunisian adults to determine their attitude towards the events that have unfolded in Tunisia since the revolution. What we found was a deeply dissatisfied electorate and an extremely polarised society.

A majority of Tunisians say they have lost the hope they had two and a half years ago. The Brotherhood-led government has diminished support and is currently distrusted by almost three-quarters of the electorate. Tunisians say they are concerned that Ennahda is dominating the government.

Ennahda has the confidence of only 28 per cent of Tunisians. While more than 90 per cent Ennahda supporters show some degree of support for their government, more than 95 per cent of the rest of Tunisians (72 per cent of the population) do not support the Ennahda-led government.

The 72 per cent of the rest of the electorate is divided among a number of relatively weak parties with no one party able to muster the confidence of more than one-quarter of the adult population.

But, unlike in Egypt, Tunisians are not looking to the military to steer the change. In fact, a majority of Tunisians (53 per cent) say that they believe that the action by the Egyptian military was “incorrect”.

The organised Tunisian opposition, to date, is comprised of a coalition of secular parties and the country’s trade union movement. And while Tunisians are deeply concerned that Ennahda tolerated the activities of extremist Salafi groups – which they blame for the recent assassinations of two popular leftist political leaders – it appears from the poll that the fear of “Islamisation” of the country is not a major factor in the public’s discontent with the government. Rather, the ZRS poll makes clear that the majority of Tunisians are disturbed by the government’s ineffectiveness and its failure to deliver on the political and economic promises of their revolution.

The ZRS poll also shows that two-thirds of Tunisians feel their country is moving in the wrong direction. Less than one-third say the government has been effective in addressing priority concerns like expanding employment opportunities, dealing with the high cost of living and protecting personal and civil rights.

On not one of the 11 political concerns identified in the poll did a majority of Tunisians agree that the government has been effective; and almost three-quarters of all Tunisians said that the current government was “dominated by Ennahda” and was not “a balanced coalition that insures moderation”, with the same number saying they believed “Ennahda was not committed to the goals of the revolution”.

Almost two-thirds find fault with the failure of the government to produce a constitution in a timely manner. And almost three-quarters say the ANC, that was elected to amend and approve a draft constitution and set up the next election for a more permanent body, should not have extended its term in office and is now illegitimate. Additionally, while a majority claim that they still do not know enough about the draft constitution, almost three-quarters say that what they do know about this document leads them to disapprove of it.

Finally, it is important to note that there is a dearth of credible leadership in the country. In fact, the only leader who enjoys 50 per cent support is Hamadi Jebali, the current secretary general of Ennahda. He had been prime minister but resigned in February after the assassination of Chokri Belaid, a popular leftist leader. This act may account for Mr Jebali’s popularity. The other Tunisian whose support approaches 50 per cent is retired General Rachid Ammar whose popularity rose when he refused to use force against demonstrators calling for the government of then President Ben Ali to resign.

Where Tunisia goes from here is uncertain. What is clear, however, is that while Ennahda remains a strong force in the country, the Muslim Brotherhood has exhausted itself and is no longer able to monopolise power and government. What is also clear is that an empowered Tunisian electorate is mobilised and appears able to assert itself. Far from dead, the spirit of the Arab Spring appears to be alive and well in Tunisia.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa