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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 17 January 2019

Tunisia's road beyond revolution has been rocky but it might just weather this political storm

The nation's institutions are functioning as a result of hard choices, both good and bad, made by people with real power

Mohamed Bouazizi's death ushered in a new era in Tunisian politics
Mohamed Bouazizi's death ushered in a new era in Tunisian politics

Exactly eight years have passed since one of the most pivotal moments in recent Middle Eastern history took place in a small town in Tunisia's interior.

The details surrounding the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a young street vendor frustrated and helpless in the face of official intransigence, are now well-known, a small, tragic story that snowballed into the Arab uprisings of 2011 and helped usher in a new era in Tunisian history.

Eight years on, Tunisia is politically unrecognisable. There have been three elections since the revolution in January 2011. In each one, the losers have accepted defeat without violence and continued to work within the system. On each occasion, there has been less a margin of less than 10 per cent between the winning party and the runner-up, a far cry from the suspiciously high electoral tallies of the Zine El Abidine Ben Ali era. There has been consensus, compromise and genuine politicking at play.

Tunisia's road beyond revolution has been rocky and marked by protests and bloodshed. But the nation's politics are probably the least dramatic of all the countries involved in the Arab uprisings. That is significant – a slow, stuttering and halting success, perhaps, but one which Tunisians would still be grateful for, considering the alternatives.

It is worth reflecting on those gains, particularly in the light of the current political climate. In recent year, Tunisia's politics have veered from the mundane to the dramatic. These days, it is a mix of the two.

The most dramatic revelation of recent weeks has been the claim that Ennahda ran a covert security service and that the organisation was responsible for the assassination of two prominent left-wing politicians five years ago. The accusation might seem far-fetched but the National Security Council has taken it seriously enough to meet, and a lawyer for one of the two politicians allegedly assassinated has filed a court case to sanction Ennahda.

A second court case is also pending, this time filed by president Beji Caid Essebsi's party, Nidaa Tounes, against the prime minister Youssef Chahed for plotting a “coup”. The allegations are particularly telling, given that it was Nidaa Tounes that first put forward Mr Chahed for the prime ministerial post.

But that claim comes in the wider context of political machinations ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections planned for next year. Three months ago, the coalition agreement between the Islamist Ennahda party and secularist Nidaa Tounes party ended in acrimony and bitter accusations. At least part of what is motivating the animosity between Nidaa Tounes and Mr Chahed is a clash of ambitions between the prime minister and Hafedh Caid Essebsi, the president's son and executive director of Nidaa Tounes. If Mr Chahed is to be the main candidate in the 2019 elections, he needs Nidaa Tounes to back him, but that is unlikely with the president's son as kingmaker and ruptures dividing the party.

These developments are certainly dramatic – but not unmanageable within the fledgling institutions of the Tunisian state. The response to recent terror attacks – the country saw its first female suicide bombing in October – has been calm and measured. Even the fallout from some of the darkest episodes of recent years – 2015 was particularly deadly, as Tunisia suffered three devastating terror attacks in the space of nine months – has been contained within the system.

While matters have been fraught within parliament, the impact beyond its walls has been relatively contained. That was despite a controversial cabinet reshuffle last month proposed by Mr Chahed and a general strike amid rising unemployment and inflation.

But neither Ennahda nor Nidaa Tounes have used their political divorce as an opportunity to mobilise against one other. There has been no breakdown of law and order. Nor has Ennahda, the largest party in power, sought to exploit the fractures in Nidaa Tounes and destabilise the government to meet its own ends.

There have been enormous challenges to the government, from within and without. The strike last month brought hospitals, schools and ministries to a standstill. The lawsuit against the prime minister could provoke a real constitutional crisis. Yet while the split between Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes is getting ugly, it has remained within the bounds of democratic politics. There has been no breakdown of law and order.

Ahead of the elections next year, the president might well wish to remove any challengers to the possibility of his son succeeding him. Yet he has not had Mr Chahed arrested on spurious charges, nor has he sought to have him removed as prime minister, which is within his power. He has not, as head of the armed forces, used the power of the military to get his way politically.

Similar manoeuvres have been used elsewhere in the region in recent years. Yet Tunisia's politicians have held back and allowed the system to prevail.

Although the country is certainly going through a difficult moment, it is also functioning in a way that suggests it might be able to weather these political storms. That is the result of hard choices – both good and bad – made by people with real power. There was certainly no guarantee – nor any portent – of this outcome when Bouazizi started his protest eight years ago.

Indeed, his actions also triggered a new era in the Middle East. For some of those countries which subsequently experienced turmoil – for most, in fact – that new era did not start well. Yemenis, Syrians and Libyans are still living through some of the hardest years in recent history.

If the experience of Tunisians gives hope to those countries, perhaps the fate of those countries should also serve as a warning to Tunisians in times of great difficulty. Because politics is ultimately about small decisions, made one at a time, moving the ship of state incrementally but inexorably towards a destination. Make the wrong decisions, or the right ones at the wrong time, and the trajectory can be fatal. Building institutions and rebuilding a country takes a million little decisions and countless incremental steps.

For Tunisians, then, eight years on, there is doubtless a rocky road ahead. Yet they have already taken a million tiny steps in the right direction.

Updated: December 11, 2018 05:21 PM

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