x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Tunisia enters a critical phase in its transitional period

Tunisia can overcome the current crisis if the country's political rivals can find a way to put aside differences.

They're still on the streets in Tunisia, where there are clearly drawn battle-lines and no sign of either camp backing down.

The Tunisian opposition is furious over the assassinations of two key figures in less than six months and is demanding the resignation of the Islamist Ennahda-led coalition. Meanwhile, Ennahda has been mobilising crowds of supporters to assert that its resignation is out of the question. The turmoil in Egypt is on everyone's mind. With death-tolls rising daily in that country, there is a perceived risk of a possible "contagion" - that events in Egypt will spill over into Tunisia.

Tunisia also faces extremism on its Algerian border - where eight Tunisian soldiers were killed by militants last month. The economy is slumping even further, unemployment is high and parliament is suspended in the face of a crisis that is on the cusp of spiralling out of control.

But analysts seem confident that Tunisia won't trip over into a meltdown the way that Egypt just did, not least because the army has a different role and standing in each nation. Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, where he directs the Middle East Centre, says that Tunisia remains the best equipped of all the Arab uprisings countries to survive a smooth transitional process.

"Even though there are very real fears that Tunisia could descend into an all-out struggle or political conflict, the forces of moderation and restraint in Tunisia are much more potent than the forces of disruption," Prof Gerges says.

Tunisia is deeply divided, in a battle between Islamists and non-Islamists over hegemony and national identity. There are, he says "extremes on both sides going to great lengths to undermine and drive a wedge between larger, more moderate elements that represent the majority within both groups".

These moderate elements are what is hoped will keep the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), charged with the task of drawing up the country's constitution, in place and in session. Having promised, back in 2011 when it was elected, to produce a constitution within a year, the NCA has rumbled along, amid much disagreement over some vague wordings inserted into the document by Ennahda members.

Now, the NCA pledges to finish this task and then hold elections by the end of the year, but there is a touch of public cynicism around deadlines. The Tunisian opposition is calling for the dissolution of the NCA but this sounds like the sort of disruptive move that Prof Gerges has warned over. As Youssef Cherif, a political commentator on north Africa, points out: "Tunisia has spent too much time and money on it [the NCA] - it can't back down and dissolve it now."

Mr Cherif and other analysts also note that Ennahda must take political violence far more seriously - beyond the shocked words condemning political attacks and into concrete action to pursue perpetrators of it, including violent Salafis and Islamist militants. "Ennahda from the beginning had a take that is both naive and Machiavellian," says Mr Cherif.

Ennahda is accused of not doing anything to quell Tunisia's alarming spike in political violence - not just those shocking murders of opposition leaders Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, but also street-level attacks on artists, activists and intellectuals.

The party has seemingly tolerated the self-styled Leagues to Protect the Revolution - neighbourhood protection groups which the opposition describes as Ennahda party enforcers. And clearly the anger over violence and extremism is not just about security and safety from attack: it is about a fundamental freedom of expression, which has been coming under religiously motivated attack. Essentially, the right to offend is at loggerheads with those who claim a bigger right to be offended.

But Prof Gerges says that in recent months, the party has noticeably changed its stance: "The party now seems more aware and realises that you cannot belittle or underestimate the question of violence. Ennahda is taking a harder tone against the militant Salafis (as opposed to the political ones). They now say publicly that some Salafis are terrorists."

The prime minister, Ali Larayedh, showed such a shift in his statements on the takfiri organisation, Ansar Al-Sharia, using language that he had never before used to describe this group. "The government will deal with Ansar Al Sharia as an illegal organisation that has committed acts of violence and has ties to terrorism," he said. "The head of this movement is involved in many affairs, including terrorism, and is wanted by security forces."

But any efforts that Ennahda now makes come in the context of what Mr Cherif describes as a hostile political environment. "Most Tunisian businessmen are now openly against the government, most of the intellectuals, too, and there is an unprecedented media campaign against the government," he says. "That's affecting the image and the perception of legitimacy of the government."

It's a critical time with multiple challenges and those urgent differences between Islamists and the opposition are obviously significant. But it seems that Tunisia can only survive this crisis by finding a way to put aside such differences during this transitional period.

As Dr Larbi Sadiki, a specialist in Arab democratisation, revolution and transition has written: "Ideology and party must not be prioritised over Tunisia. Ideology must be left out of constitution-framing …. It is in this spirit that Tunisia will be able to measure up to the challenges of democracy and security in every sense."

 

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and the author of Not the Enemy - Israel's Jews from Arab Lands

On Twitter @rachshabi