x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Tunisians prepare to elect a national assembly

For the first time ever, Tunisians will freely choose their leaders. Yet much work – and some pitfalls – remain on the path to democracy.

Ennahda party supporters dance during a rally near Tunis.
Ennahda party supporters dance during a rally near Tunis.

TUNIS // Tomorrow morning, after nine months of revolution followed by social upheaval and political battles, Tunisians go to the polls. Then the real work begins.

After inspiring the Arab Spring by toppling Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia again will set an example in moving from dictatorship to democracy.

Excitement has swelled further with Muammar Qaddafi's death on Thursday. But while Libyans rejoiced at Qaddafi's downfall, Tunisians were facing the next phase of democratic transition with both hope and concern.

For the first time ever, Tunisians will freely choose their leaders. Yet much work - and some pitfalls - remain on the path to democracy.

The national assembly that emerges from tomorrow's vote must create a fresh interim government and draft a constitution amid fierce debate over Tunisia's identity.

The potential triumph of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, expected to come in first in polls, could provide a template for Islamist politics in an Arab democracy.

However, the party's rise has also alarmed secularists and focused national debate on the role of religion in public life.

Tunisia's next interim government must work through such rivalries, while reviving a stricken economy and reforming institutions long twisted to the service of autocracy.

The first task of the national assembly will be to set up a new interim government. How and when that will happen remains unclear.

For now, the current caretaker government will remain in place, said the prime minister, Beji Caid Essebsi, in televised remarks on Thursday aimed at reassuring Tunisians.

Key to forming a new government is how secularist parties will deal with Ennahda. While the party has embraced democracy and pledged to respect Tunisia's progressive positions on women's rights, some secularists have accused it of harbouring a radical agenda.

The urgent need for reforms could lead to unlikely alliances, analysts said. Ennahda wants a national unity government to bridge the Islamist-secularist divide.

"Ennahda is in no rush to govern given the difficult socio-economic environment, but it is also weary of attempts by other parties to undermine its standing," said Jean-Baptiste Gallopin, a North Africa analyst at Control Risks, a British risk-assessment firm.

In apparent exasperation, Ennahda's leader, Rached Ghannouchi, warned this week that the party would back street demonstrations if the voting is rigged.

Mr Essebsi on Thursday promised a clean vote that would "show that there is no contradiction between Islam and democracy".

While some secularist parties may try to form a majority bloc, "I think most of the parties will actually work together", said Michael Willis, a professor of Moroccan and Mediterranean studies at Oxford University.

Nevertheless, potential would remain for initial gridlock as parties squabble over cabinet portfolios, Mr Gallopin said.

One alternative would be a cabinet of technocrats, he said. "But in both cases, there is a risk that the cabinet will lack the legitimacy or cohesiveness that are required for important decisions on economic policy."

For many Tunisians, it is one thing to wait months for a new constitution. It is another to wait that long - or longer - for a job.

The revolution that freed Tunisia from the rule of Mr Ben Ali inadvertently crippled an economy already weakened by corruption. With many investors and tourists spooked by political turmoil, Tunisia's economic growth this year is expected to flatline.

For the next government, the pressure is on for quick solutions to boost jobs and signal an end to malaise.

Easier said than done, according to David Rinck, a Tunis-based economist with the Institute for Social and Economic Development, a US non-profit, who heads a State Department-funded project to help improve North African business environments.

"There's no low-hanging fruit in terms of economic reform," Mr Rinck said. "Instead, there's a set of specialised and technical challenges to the management of the economy."

Key among those challenges is halting a slide towards not being able to maintain payments on US$21.45 billion (Dh78.12bn) in foreign debt, said Mr Rinck.

"This country has been on a downwards slope in terms of foreign exchange reserve liquidity for over 10 years," he said. "The events of the revolution have accelerated that process, especially the blow to the tourism sector."

On Tuesday, Tunisia's finance minister, Jalloul Ayed, called on the next crop of leaders to help revive the economy by restarting a privatisation programme put on hold by January's revolution.

The nightmare scenario of a default on debts would shake both investor and public confidence, Mr Rinck said.

Also at risk are Tunisian banks pressured by Mr Ben Ali's regime into investing in projects of the ruling clique.

"Given public anger of corruption, the government will come under pressure to expropriate those properties," Mr Rinck said. For banks whose loan portfolios are tainted by even 5 to 10 per cent, state seizure "could potentially be fatal".

Where Tunisia's economy needs cultivation, its legal codes need pruning to safeguard rights squashed by Mr Ben Ali's regime.

"Tunisia is saddled with scores of repressive laws used to muzzle dissent," said Eric Goldstein, the deputy Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch.

While Tunisia's constitution appears to guarantee civil liberties, penal codes are littered with restrictions on free speech, public gatherings, and organised groups.

"As long as those laws are still there, there's a danger that somebody will be tempted to use them," Mr Goldstein said.

One example of backsliding was the May arrest of the security official Samir Feriani after he accused interior ministry officials of human rights abuses.

While Mr Feriani was released months later, his arrest illustrated the danger of leaving Ben Ali-era laws on the books, Mr Goldstein said.

Other tasks include reforming the judiciary and retraining security forces, long deployed by Mr Ben Ali's regime as tools of repression.

For now, Tunisia's interim leaders have taken steps forward on civil rights, said Mr Goldstein, citing decree laws liberating the press and opening the political playing field.

"But there's more to do, and there's always a danger that the next government could roll back reforms," he said.

The future, increasingly, is for Tunisians to write. With tomorrow's vote they begin the next chapter.