x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Secular parties risk irrelevance in Tunisia's polarising politics

The longer it takes for a constitution to be put in place and elections to be held, the more frustrated Tunisians will become.

A year has passed since Tunisians, still dazed from the swift fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and by their country's awakening, went to the polls.

The election on October 23 was not for a government, but rather to choose a constituent assembly, which was supposed to write the new rules of the country's political system. The assembly's writ ran for one year. Yet the constitution remains unwritten, and the assembly has not disbanded. Elections will now be held in June at the earliest.

Tunisians are understandably frustrated. The pace of political reform has been slow, and people are eager to get moving. A clear divide is opening between the people and the new political class, as evidenced by demonstrations last week against the "troika", as the three largest parties of the assembly have been dubbed. Public agitation threatens to pull apart the brief concord that existed in the early days of the revolution. But this is unlikely to end in the way that most people are expecting.

For "the people", so to speak, the political wrangling is only a step towards solving the real problems of Tunisia. The economy is still faltering; the gap between the cities and rural hinterland is unaddressed; the law is unevenly applied; and a culture of impunity for public officials still exists, as highlighted in the notorious case of a woman accused of indecency after filing rape charges against two police officers.

The public clearly believes that more unrest - demonstrations and sit-ins - will encourage politicians to hurry reforms. It may do precisely the opposite, encouraging politicians to make pledges that will resonate, rather than enact big policies that will change the country for the better.

For the political class, the wrangling is a fight for survival. Reporting on Tunisia is often framed in terms of conflict between parties: Ennahda versus Congress, Ennahda versus Nida Tunis, or even Ettakatol versus Congress.

Most politicians appear to recognise only one enemy: Ennahda, the best-organised Islamist party that took the largest share of seats in the assembly. Its two coalition parties, Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol, view it with undisguised suspicion and have been pushing the line to supporters that their presence in the coalition is an important buffer against the implementation of Sharia law.

They appear to have a point. Although Ennahda has vetoed any mention of Sharia as the "basis" for constitutional law, it has suggested that the role of women would be redesignated as "complementary" to that of men. Such language triggers alarm bells among politicians keen to maintain civil-rights gains of the past decades.

Ennahda has framed its conclusions in both cases as the inevitable outcomes of "discussions". The statements may just have been missteps: Ennahda is well-organised, but lacks real political experience, after being banned in Tunisia for decades.

The secular political groups are frankly unwilling to give Ennahda the benefit of the doubt, despite the conciliatory language of Rachid Ghannouchi, the intellectual politician behind Ennahda. Mr Ghannouchi holds no official position in the assembly, although there is little doubt he is the most influential politician in Tunisia.

In April, a leaked tape emerged of Mr Ghannouchi speaking to young leaders from an austere Salafist movement. "The secularists are still controlling the media, economy and administration," he said. "Therefore, controlling them requires more time ... Why hurry? Take your time to consolidate what you have gained." Ennahda said his words were taken out of context, but few of his political adversaries were convinced.

The truth is that the political concord is fracturing. The founding of a new political party in June rekindled old hatreds. Nida Tunis, the Call of Tunisia, was founded by an official from Ben Ali's regime. The troika suspect that Nida Tunis is gathering old regime members from Ben Ali's defunct Constitutional Democratic Rally party. Such is the depth of feeling that Ennahda and Congress both boycotted talks about recent violent demonstrations because Nida Tunis was scheduled to attend.

This is dangerous for both Congress and Ettakatol, which bear the broad "secular" mantle in Tunisian politics. What Mr Ghannouchi told Salafist supporters also applies to secular forces: their own position and support at the ballot box are not guaranteed. What is a brief opening for them - and a groundswell of sometimes grudging support among those opposed to Ennahda - could easily dissipate.

Maya Jribi of the Republican Party, a smaller secular party, has warned that Islamists plan "to build a non-civil state to undermine the state and destroy trust between components of society". She also questions the speed of reforms. Those who advocate a civil state are being left behind.

Both Congress and Ettakatol need to work with Ennahda, for the benefit of the country, naturally, but also for narrow political reasons. Ennahda is part of the political fabric of the country. The longer the assembly drags on with its negotiations, the more public indifference, or anger, will increase. If the secular parties believe that a weakened Ennahda will give them an opportunity, they are wrong.

The old regime can still reassert itself, and the vocal Salafist movement is increasingly organised. Mr Ghannouchi spoke so candidly because he knows there is considerable overlap between the Salafists and his party. Those who aspire to build a civil state in Tunisia should recognise that the winds of change don't necessarily favour them.



On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai