x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Tunisia needs change, but with a mandate

Tunisia's voters gave Ennahda the most assembly seats, leading to a coalition cabinet. But an assassination fuelled demand for a less-partisan ministry. The answer lies in compromise.

Tunisia's prime minister has a clear plan, and has threatened to resign if he cannot implement it. Hamadi Jebali wants to form a new "technocratic" cabinet of managers to replace the current coalition cabinet of politicians. Mr Jebali argues that only such a move can stem the crisis that has gripped the country since leftist politician Chokri Belaid was assassinated at the start of the month.

There is only one problem: his own party. Mr Jebali is part of Ennahda, the Islamist party that won the most seats in the constituent assembly. But he is prominent in a moderate wing more open to national compromise than the other side of the party, under its head Rached Ghannouchi. The party says it is open to discussing a "national political coalition", but that the will of the people should be respected.

This goes to the heart of the debate over what happens next in Tunisia. Two years on from the revolution that toppled President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, the country has yet to be placed on a firm footing. For months, it looked as if the transition was working, slowly but relentlessly, although the economy was not improving. But the murder of Mr Belaid by unknown assailants has thrown the process into flux and revealed fractures in the coalition. The second largest coalition party, the Congress for the Republic, has endorsed the idea of a technocratic cabinet.

It is clear that Ennahda has lost the confidence of a significant part of the Tunisian electorate. But it is not clear that Mr Jebali, without a democratic mandate, can simply sweep aside the elections that brought Tunisia out of the Ben Ali era.

Those who criticise Ennahda for failing to stabilise the security situation are giving the other coalition partners a free pass. And some of those who criticise the party do so for nakedly political reasons. But nor is it right that Ennahda claim, as some of its leaders have done, that the prime minister is mounting a "coup d'état". Mr Jebali, on the contrary, appears to have widespread support for his measures.

The road out of this impasse is, naturally, compromise. This is a difficult moment in Tunisia but with some movement on both sides, a government can yet emerge that moves the country forward in its transition while respecting the will of the majority that voted for change.