Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 June 2019

Tunisia’s unlikely allies say they are ready to bury differences

The interim government taking shape in Tunisia is an unlikely coalition of moderate Islamists and liberal secularists whose parties topped the poll in elections last month.
The leader of the Congress for the Republic Party (CPR) Moncef Marzouki. Tunisia's biggest secular party has started coalition talks with the Islamist Ennahda, which leads the vote count in historic polls, insisting the frontrunner is neither the devil nor the Taliban.
The leader of the Congress for the Republic Party (CPR) Moncef Marzouki. Tunisia's biggest secular party has started coalition talks with the Islamist Ennahda, which leads the vote count in historic polls, insisting the frontrunner is neither the devil nor the Taliban.

TUNIS // Oppression made them victims, revolution made them rivals, and finally voters made them partners.

The interim government taking shape in Tunisia is an unlikely coalition of moderate Islamists and liberal secularists whose parties topped the poll in elections last month for a national assembly.

That coalition's success - or failure - could offer lessons to other countries swept up in the Arab Spring revolts where long-excluded Islamists could soon take part in governance. Tunisia's new government is due to be announced this week.

For Tunisia's next leaders, power sharing means shelving disputes over religion to focus on creating jobs, writing a new constitution and reforming state institutions warped to the service of autocracy.

"People expect the next government to respect human rights and foster dialogue," said Zied Doulatli, a senior member of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, which came first in the election. "Lack of public confidence could lead to a social explosion."

With 91 of 217 assembly seats, Ennahda will lead a coalition government with the parties that came second and third: the secularist Congress for the Republic (CPR), and the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties, known by its Arabic name, Ettakatol.

During the election campaign, the future coalition partners pledged their willingness to work together despite competing for votes.

That message pleased voters, who relegated to fifth place a former leading party after it ran an anti-Ennahda campaign.

While all three coalition parties were repressed by the regime of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, Ennahda arguably suffered worst. Thousands of its activists were jailed or driven into exile.

The revolution that toppled Mr Ben Ali in January also unleashed Ennahda as a political force, alarming Tunisians who saw the group as a threat to liberal values.

Ennahda denies claims that it has a hidden radical agenda. The party has embraced democracy while seeking to promote Tunisia's Arab-Muslim identity.

For the CPR and Ettakatol, that platform offered a bridge across Tunisia's Islamist-secularist divide.

"We told conservatives that we're for national identity, but not as a prison; and we told secularists that we support human rights, women's rights and freedom of speech," said Moncef Marzouki, the CPR's leader. "We can promote these rights without being in an ideological civil war with the conservative part of society."

Ettakatol has lingering doubts about Ennahda but is willing to work with it, said Abdellatif Abid, an Ettakatol co-founder. "We're not secularists as the west conceives of it. We're for the separation of religion and politics, but not of religion and the state."

The three parties agree on keeping the first article of Tunisia's constitution, which states that Islam is the country's religion and Arabic its language. No new laws on religion are planned.

"From now on, the questions in televised debates will be on how we're dealing with health policy, the economy and so forth," Mr Doulatli said. "Questions that were lacking previously."

Turmoil after Mr Ben Ali's removal scared off tourists and investors, crippling an economy already weakened by corruption.

Ennahda proposes an independent central bank and convertible currency to fuel growth that is expected to flatline this year.

Ettakatol wants to divert funds from infrastructure projects to create 100,000 public-sector jobs next year, fulfilling the party's pledge to support workers.

All parties support liberal trade policies, and Mr Marzouki points out that reforming corrupt institutions could reassure foreign investors.

Key targets are the security services and judiciary, which served Mr Ben Ali as tools of repression, he said. "We can't build a new political system without cleaning those out."

Under Mr Ben Ali, a vast security apparatus spied on and intimidated Tunisians, arresting those deemed a threat to his regime. Courts punished critics while ignoring the corruption of Mr Ben Ali's family and associates.

Since January, interim authorities have opened trials against Mr Ben Ali and several members of his family. Tunisia's next leaders plan to crack down harder.

For ideas on how to bring regime figures to justice, Ennahda is looking at truth commissions set up in South Africa and Morocco to look into state abuses, Mr Doulatli said. "We want to convince people that there is accountability; that democracy is real," he said.

First, however, a new government must be decided. That is where give-and-take could veer into push-and-shove.

While the parties agree that Ennahda will name the next prime minister, both the CPR and Ettakatol claim the presidency.

Ettakatol is keen to secure a "respectable" number of ministries despite coming third in tyhe elections. "We won't accept having a secondary or token role," said Mr Abid.

The next government will be instrumental in writing a new constitution, expected in about a year, along with fresh elections.

Disagreement could arise over Tunisia's ultimate form of government, with Ennahda favouring a parliamentary system and the CPR a mixed one, while the timetable for reforms has raised concerns.

"We think we need at least three years," said Mr Marzouki. "This is a matter of discussion, even conflict, with our partners."

Ten months ago such discussion was unthinkable. Today it is rife, animating a country hungry for change.

"Tunisians were deprived of free speech and civil liberties, and now they want both," said Mr Marzouki. "That makes me very optimistic for the kind of society we will have."

 

jthorne@thenational.ae

Updated: November 6, 2011 04:00 AM

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