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Case Analysis 21 February, 2013

The Political Crisis in Tunisia


The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


Chokri Belaid, a leftist radical and member of the Tunisian political opposition, was assassinated outside his home on the morning of February 6, 2013. While the assassins displayed an astonishing disregard for anonymity-not even concealing their faces, according to some eyewitnesses-their operation was nonetheless professionally executed. The tense environment in which the assassination took place has made any sober discussion surrounding the identity of the assassin impossible. From the outset of the crisis, the different sides have tradedaccusations based on political motivations -a debate completely removed from the progress of the investigations.

As a result, two general accusations have arisen: the killers must either have come from within the coalition, given that the victim was a prominent member of the opposition; or the murderer must have been a member of the opposition seeking to throw the democratic process off course, since the government has "no interest" in murdering Belaid. Both political allegations have no relation to the law.

The political climate has strongly influenced the work of the Ministry of Interior, lending a great deal of support to the opposition's claims that the Ministry should be "made neutral", regardless of how relevant its work is to the political sphere. The public is thus confronted with a crisis in which it is proving difficult to even agree on a least common denominator, resulting in escalating tensions. Today, the important question is not "Who was the murderer?" but rather, "Who will be the next victim?".

In their discussions behind closed doors, Tunisia's political class most commonly compares this situation to the assassination of Lebanon's Rafic Hariri in 2005. Like in Lebanon's crisis, the political function that this assassination plays will take precedence over any investigation into the crime itself, which will in turn become a relatively marginal affair and almost impossible to achieve.

The Troika's Crisis

Belaid's assassination was the final blow which tipped the scales in the ongoing political crisis. The tripartite ruling coalition - made up of the Ennahda, the Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettakatol (Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties), known as the Troika - has been undergoing a deep internal crisis. In addition, there has been rising awareness of the fact that the government is losing its popularity, and that the electoral support base of the three groups within the Troika is dwindling. The reasons for this are not exclusively to do with the unavoidable pitfalls of being in authority, nor are they limited to the tests which any authority would face at such a situation; rather, a number of the factors leading to this crisis are specific to Tunisia.

The Tunisian elections were held in the midst of high hopes and expectations: many Tunisians were looking forward to the achievement of the revolution's aims, including the overthrow of corrupt officials, the indictment of violators of human rights, and the development of the most deprived areas - the birthplace of the revolution. Yet the elected government has chosen not to confront the old regime. Meanwhile, the limited, transitional mandate granted to the parties within the ruling majority has been solely utilized for slow-paced reform. In other words, popular expectations of instant, structural reform have collided with political tools which have to date led to only superficial changes.

The fact that the ruling coalition has behaved hesitantly, and has acted more as an interim government than as a ruling coalition promoting a revolutionary political agenda during a transitional period, has made matters worse. In fact, the ruling coalition has not been able to implement some of the reforms which should have been possible during the transitional phase. The Troika itself is a coalition born of necessity, without a clear agenda and plan of action. Over time, it has become clear that this is its main drawback. The opposition has not been able to benefit from a confrontational approach towards the old regime, but rather has made use of the Troika's pragmatism, and particularly its tendency towards conciliation.

In light of the principles guiding the transitional phase, the need to introduce change to the government's performance would seem obvious, especially given the opposition's repeated attempts at confrontation with the standing government. These confrontations have reached a point where the opposition is willing to delegitimize the sole elected institution formed in the aftermath of the revolution, the National Constitutional Assembly.

Within the Troika itself, discussions have focused on two separate tracks. The first involves the drafting of a "Road Map," in the sense of a jointly agreed document which could set out a governmental plan of action for the remainder of the transitional period. This track also includes the convening of a National Dialogue to bring the various parties together to help lay the foundations for the coming elections.

The second track is more complex, and relates to changes in ministerial portfolios: the ruling party, Ennahda, has been faced with demands by other members of the coalition to change the portfolios of a number of the state ministries which the leading group controls, or even to make those positions non-political. When the expansion of the governing coalition was discussed, it gradually became clear that the negotiations to arrive at an agreement between the three sides were heading towards deadlock, leading to the possibility of the collapse of the coalition itself. This risk has seemed particularly acute given that the CPR has made several official threats to withdraw from the government.

The assassination of Chokri Belaid delivered the death blow to the Troika's prospects. At that point, the Prime Minister and Secretary General of Ennahda, Hamadi Jebali, decided to form a "Government of Technocrats" independent of political parties, on the grounds that the ruling tripartite coalition had failed to arrive at an agreement. The greater dilemma, however, is that this decision by the Prime Minister is at odds with the position of his own party, which is adamant that a politically based coalition government be formed.

An Overturn of Legitimacy?

A number of prominent opposition members pointed the blame for Belaid's assassination directly at Ennahda, which, they claimed, held either political or actual responsibility for his death. An escalation in the opposition's stance occurred very rapidly, in the space of the three days between Belaid's assassination and the funeral procession, after which opposition demands have alternated between toppling the government and dissolving the Constituent Assembly. Belaid's funeral was marked by chants against Ennahda and calls for "the fall of the regime".

Shortly after the assassination, the Nidaa Tunis party (The Call of Tunisia) came to prominence as an influential force within the political opposition. Available opinion poll data and the public meetings which Nidaa holds from time to time, suggest that the group has emerged as a main contender to Ennahda. Nidaa is led by Beji Caed Sabsi, who was the interim Prime Minister in the run-up to the Constituent Assembly elections. When Caed Sabsi, known for his connections to [founding President of Tunisia] Habib Bourguiba, was at the helm at the Ministry of Interior, that institution became known for repressive measures. Caed Sabsi is also known for his close connections to Western powers. Yet Nidaa remains a group made up of a heterogeneous mix of individuals linked to the ousted regime and leftists, and the party as a whole lacks a clear and coherent political action program.

Since its formation last spring, Nidaa has come to fame for its anti-Islamist slant, and its defense of the Bourguiba modernist model for Tunisia. In adopting this approach, it has called for the Constituent Assembly's term to be limited to one year, and rejected the idea that the government in power during the transitional be composed of cadres of political parties.

Nidaa launched its political campaign on October 23, 2012 - the first anniversary of the elections for the Constituent Assembly - with calls for an end to "electoral legitimacy" in favor of "consensus-based legitimacy," which implies, in effect, an end to the Constituent Assembly. The assassination of Belaid has provided the opportunity for a frank discussion of these themes, and for Caed Sabsi to call for dissolution of the Constituent Assembly and the formation of a new consensus-based cabinet.[1]

Only a few days before Belaid's assassination, the representatives of two of the opposition parties represented within the Constituent Assembly-the Jamhouri and Almassar parties-formed a joint political and electoral bloc alongside Nidaa. Beyond that alliance, however, these groups' stances are not aligned; the other parties defend their decision to suspend their representatives' membership of the Constituent Assembly, but do not support calls to dissolve that body.

Meanwhile, the Popular Front-an alliance composed of radical leftwing groups, and of which Chokri Belaid was a leader-has been adamant in its push to develop structures parallel to the existing legitimate institutions. The Popular Front has called for a "Conference of National Salvation" which would then lead to the formation of a crisis caretaker government. One of the most significant consequences of Belaid's assassination was arguably the way in which it brought Nidaa closer to the Popular Front, which had previously seen itself as a third way between the Troika and Nidaa. Previously, the Popular Front had stressed that it had no connection to the ousted regime; rather, it said, the former government's members filled the ranks of Nidaa. However, the two groups have held a number of joint coordinating meetings, focused on aligning their broad political stances.

The rapid development of events, the escalation on the part of the opposition, and the calls to re-examine the entire means of progressing thus far, have driven some, especially within the government, to speak of "an attempt to overturn legitimacy". The Army, represented by the technocrat Minister of Defense, who is close to the commanding officers, given indications of some unhelpful intentions in this regard. Uncharacteristically, the Minister conducted a telephone conversation which was broadcast on television in which he disparaged any suggestion that the President could make the armed forces available for Belaid's funeral. According to the Minister, the Army is not beholden to any political party, implicitly casting doubt on the capacity of temporary President and founder of the Troika-aligned CPR, Moncef Marzouki, to serve as commander of the Armed Forces.

The attitudes of a number of foreign players, and particularly that of France, have further fanned the flames. Speaking on one of his country's most widely broadcast radio stations, France's Minister of the Interior Emmanuel Valls expressed a somewhat extreme position when he spoke of the need for France to support the democrats in Tunisia, and offered biting criticism of what he called "rising Islamic fascism". The official Tunisian response to Valls' statements was immediate, with the French Ambassador to Tunisia summoned in protest at a "blatant intervention in Tunisian affairs". Yet in cannot be said that Valls-well-known for his bitter enmity towards Islamists-had spoken in tune with his own President and Foreign Minister, whose positions have been more cautious, maintaining a distance from events unfolding in Tunisia.

Caed Sabsi also made his voice heard through the same French radio station, where he presented himself as a representative of "the democrats" of whom Valls spoke. This can be interpreted to mean that the figureheads of the ousted regime, France's traditional allies, who make up the membership of this party, have a monopoly on democracy. The Tunisian authorities took these incidents as evidence of an alliance between Paris and the Tunisian opposition, especially after a spokeswoman for the Popular Front, speaking on the French satellite television station France 24 called for French intervention in Tunisia, similar to that in Mali.

Possible Scenarios

Three possible outcomes could result from the present situation and shape the future government in Tunisia.

First, a government of independent administrators (commonly referred to as a government of technocrats) could be formed, an idea proposed by Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali which has the support of wide swathes of the opposition, especially Nidaa. The opposition's support for this position is due, most likely, to two factors. The first relates to the Prime Minister stating that the Constituent Assembly would not need the support of the proposed government of technocrats, and if implemented this would take away some of the Assembly's executive powers. This would spell out, by extension, a partial dissolution of the Constituent Assembly. The second factor is based on the recognition that the ruling Troika has failed to govern, and that supporting Jebali's proposal would give the Assembly a preemptive blow before the elections. In addition to this, a government of technocrats would likely bring a number of the previous government's officials back to power, given that most of the candidate technocrats are administrators with close ties to the former regime. In other words, it would give the old regime some of their executive powers back. The fundamental obstacle to the government of technocrats remains the refusal on the part of the Ennahda, the CPR, and other groups represented within the Constituent Assembly to assent to it, thus preventing it from being approved in the present circumstances. If the Prime Minister did not present his new technocratic appointments to the cabinet for approval, he would become liable to a vote of no confidence from the Constituent Assembly, as designated in the "Mini Constitution" which regulates the present authority. The only possible way in which this solution could succeed is for Ennahda to agree to the suggestion of its own Secretary General, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali. Ennahda's other option would be simply to expel Jebali, bringing his political career to an end. All indications now are that Ennahda is adamantly opposed to the idea of a government of technocrats, believing that assenting to the idea would be tantamount to political suicide.

The second outcome would involve a government being drawn from both politicians and technocrats. Such a government would renew the political coalition from within the Constituent Assembly, while peppering it with a number of independent technocrats in some of the more professionalized ministries. This proposal was made by Ennahda and a number of other parties that are members of the present Constituent Assembly. While this option could possibly garner a comfortable majority of votes, it would also mean abandoning Hamadi Jebali, particularly if the latter is committed to the idea of a government of technocrats. Should Jebali be abandoned, he would presumably be replaced by another leader from within Ennahda, most likely Abdullatif Almakki, the present Minister of Health. A less likely replacement might be the present Minister of Agriculture, Mohammed Ben Salem. Likewise, such an option would be faced with a number of difficulties in maintaining the Troika, given that Ettakatol supports the idea of a government of technocrats while other groups within the Assembly, such as the Wafa Movement, might also support it. Yet it seems that this option would be stiffly challenged by various groups within the opposition. This would mean the continuation of the present state of polarization throughout the remainder of the constitutionally mandated transitional period, especially should the new alliance fail to agree on a common electoral agenda together with other political forces not presently within the government. Such an agenda would specify the dates for some of the major items on the list of political tasks yet to be completed: drafting the constitution, building the constitutional bodies which are to approve the electoral rolls, and setting a date for the upcoming elections.

The third possible scenario is the intervention of the military and the disbanding of elected bodies. While the probability of such an event is low, it will become increasingly likely if the present level of polarization persists, or if there are repeated assassinations and political violence escalates; in such a case Tunisia would come to resemble Algeria during its Civil War. Such an outcome would effectively mean the Army confronting not only Ennahda and various Islamist groups, but also a number of secular movements who would support the legitimate sides. Internal conflict could result from this scenario. This is especially true given the strong evidence showing that there is a high level of weapons smuggling activity throughout Tunisian territory, and that these weapons are being stored within the country, either for the purposes of trade or so that they may be stockpiled by Salafi jihadists.


[1] A discussion with Caed Sabsi (in French) can be found here: http://www.tunisiefocus.com/politique/beji-caid-essebsi-appelle-a-dissoudre-lassemblee-constituante-37239/



* This article was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version can be found here.