Tunisia's troika of parties must learn to compromise
Tunisia will not be governed, as its prime minister and much of the opposition desires, by a government of technocrats. That seemed to be the only certain outcome of week-long talks to find a way out of the political crisis sparked by the assassination of the secular politician Chokri Belaid, which became a rallying cry for non-Islamist political forces.
This could mean that another type of compromise - such as a cabinet reshuffle to create a government aimed at guiding the country to new elections - will have to be found, or alternatively that the political crisis will worsen and leave the current government unable to do its job.
The fragmentation of Tunisia's National Constituent Assembly makes finding a clear alternative solution difficult. Ennahda, the leading party in the current troika with the secular Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettakatol parties, dominates Tunisia's political life with nearly four-times more seats than any other party. Yet it does not have a majority, and must rule in coalition.
Most of Tunisia's parties, however, only have one seat, and among the larger remaining members of the opposition there is stiff opposition to forming a coalition with Islamists. So it appears that Ennahda would be unlikely to form anything more than a very narrow coalition with the only party still willing to remain in the troika, CPR, and that the opposition is unable to form any majority coalition of its own.
This arithmetic dilemma is further complicated by divisions within both the majority and the opposition. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali's proposal of forming a technocratic government is rejected by most of Ennahda, highlighting a split with the group's leader, Rachid Ghannouchi.
Mr Ghannouchi, in 2011, had announced he would retire from politics after the elections and leave the presidency of Ennahda to a younger generation. But he has not only remained the party's leader, but is also clearly a key figure in bridging the views of ultraconservatives in Ennahda's base with that of its more compromising leadership.
The leak last year of a video showing Mr Ghannouchi, who has serious credentials as an Islamic scholar, reassuring Salafis about Ennahda's compromises with its secular coalition partners is a case in point. For many secularists, the video confirmed that Mr Ghannouchi's strategy is long-term, and his party's moderation a temporary tactical choice rather than a fundamental commitment.
Finally, Mr Jebali is not the only Ennahda leader to have challenged Mr Ghannouchi's leadership: last week so did Abdel Fattah Mourou, the party's vice president and a historic figure of Tunisia's Islamist movement.
The troika currently in charge in Tunisia was initially a promising success story: collaboration between Islamist and secular forces that had opposed the former regime provided an anchor of stability for the country's transition.
But while Ennahda has been too reluctant to tackle extremists among its fellow travellers and the Salafi movement that is challenging it from the right, CPR and Ettakatol have lost credibility among secular forces.
The leadership of Tunisia's strong nationalist-secularist tradition, hailing back to its founding president, Habib Bourguiba, is now widely seen to be in the hands of Nida Tounes, a new party led by Beji Caid Essebsi, who ably led the last transitional government before the elections. Mr Essebsi represents in some respects a return of the old establishment, but he and his movement are popular. Polls show that Nida Tounes and Ennahda are head-to-head in public opinion, while the centrist parties trail behind.
It is not clear that a technocratic government would be so desirable. It would be a return to the kind of short-lived cabinet that existed between dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's departure and the elections. Ennahda may not have a majority of seats, but it does have, as its leaders argue, an electoral mandate. The opposition has latched on to the idea of a technocratic government after the Belaid assassination, but before that talk was of a cabinet reshuffle. This, combined with a political consensus on how to complete the writing of the new constitution and hold new elections, would be a more worthy aim.
For all their problems with Ennahda, secularists should fear an embittered Islamist movement leading the opposition itself, with considerable obstructive power, more than an Ennahda in power.
At the same time, the Islamist party has hard questions to answer about its laxity towards Salafi violence in the last year and tolerance for attacks and threats made against secular figures, artists and secular-leaning media. The opposition wants Ennahda to surrender the "sovereign" ministries of interior, justice and foreign affairs - but it is with regards to the interior (which includes the police) in particular that Ennahda's governance has been most lacking.
Belaid's death, a climate of insecurity and a fast-rising threat from violent extremists demands that this portfolio be handled more competently, while political forces focus on completing the transition. This can be achieved by a cabinet shuffle and talks among major parties focusing on the transition process and forthcoming elections - and the various parties sorting out their internal rifts, too.
Keeping the politicians in the cabinet under a new national unity government, rather than outside, would encourage moderation all around. Chances are, no party will win an outright majority in the next elections, so they might as well get used to compromise and deal-making.
Issandr El Amrani is an independent journalist who blogs at arabist.net
On Twitter: @arabist
Updated: February 20, 2013 04:00 AM