x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Tunisia's security crisis is an opportunity for politicians

The struggle for power and public support in Tunisia is playing out at different political levels at the same time.

The political crisis in Tunisia has calmed slightly since the appointment of a new prime minister last week. Ali Larayedh now has two weeks in which to form a new government - a government that will be closely scrutinised by protesters, by rival political groups and by members of his own party. Mr Larayedh's appointments will be taken as shapes in the tea leaves, predicting the form of future politics.

The crisis is less than a month old, having been sparked by the assassination of a leftist politician, Chokri Belaid, and Tunisia analysts tend to frame the issue as one of security. But it goes deeper than that. What is happening in Tunisia is much more complex: a delicate political game of thrones is being played out, with subtle political hints and less subtle manoeuvres.

Start with the gambit by the former prime minister, Hamadi Jebali. Following the assassination of Belaid, with protests spiralling on the streets of Tunis, Mr Jebali tried to seize the initiative by announcing that he would form a government of technocrats, replacing the ministers appointed by the parliament. As his own party, the ruling Ennahda, pointed out, Mr Jebali was on shaky ground, sidelining ministers who had been put in place by elected representatives. Yet, in the interests of the country during a transition, Mr Jebali may have had a point. Other members of Ennahda, however, denounced has plan as an attempted coup.

This political crisis has brought to the fore pre-existing tensions. The Congress for the Republic (CPR), the second-largest party after Ennahda, took the opportunity to push for two ministers to be replaced, threatening to withdraw from government otherwise. This was clever politicking, since Ennahda was fighting its own internal crisis. The CPR later suggested it backed Mr Jebali's plan, as did the centrist Ettakatol, the third largest party in the assembly.

The troika, as these three parties have been dubbed, have often been at loggerheads since the elections threw them together. Neither the CPR nor Ettakatol has a reliable political base as does Ennahda. As the two largest non-Islamist parties, they should be able to galvanise the support of those who dislike Ennahda or favour a more secular government. But they have not managed to do so; the street protests against Ennahda remain resolutely leaderless.

Of particular concern to both the CPR and Ettakatol has been the justice ministry, headed by a conservative Islamist from Ennahda, Nouridine Bhiri. After Belaid was killed, both parties suggested that this ministry in particular should be headed by a technocrat without party affiliation. But the CPR had targeted that ministry previously. Two days before Belaid was killed, the CPR had threatened to withdraw from government unless the foreign and justice ministers were replaced.

Alongside the battles between parties, a struggle for influence is being fought within Ennahda itself. The party is being pulled in different directions with various factions seeking to gain the upper hand. Of particular concern to many is the influence of the Salafist trend within Tunisia. Ennahda is a broad tent and many of those who support the party also flirt with the more austere, conservative Salafists. The party must balance these pressures, seeking to placate its conservative wing, while at the same time steering a course that allows to it to gain wide support among Tunisians who are not in the party.

The head of the party, Rachid Ghannouchi, takes the view that the party must be prepared to play the long game, even if that means conceding some issues to opponents. Other leaders want the party, for so many years banned under the former regime, to consolidate its gains quickly, fearful that hard-won powers may be taken away.

It is in that context that the first words of Mr Larayedh as prime minister should be understood. When he said he would form "a new government that will be for all Tunisian men and women, taking into account the fact that men and women have equal rights and responsibilities", he was sending an unmistakable signal.

One of the most serious crises of the transitional period occurred last year when Ennahda sought to change the wording of the constitution, inserting a clause that women were "complementary" to men, rather than equal. The party eventually backed down, but the incident became symbolic of the political divide. In his statement, Mr Larayedh signalled his position to allies in Ennahda and adversaries in other parties, with the clear implication that if he was not supported as prime minister, a more hard-line Ennahda figure might emerge.

The post-Arab Spring transition in Tunisia has been less tumultuous than in Egypt, for example. But the country is still attempting to navigate uncertain waters, with the country, the region and the world economy in flux. In such circumstances, what counts as politics-as-usual in other countries takes on more serious repercussions. The sands of Tunisia's politics keep shifting, creating uncertain politics that this country can ill afford.



On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai