The country that ‘started it all’ – the so-called “Arab Spring”, that is – is at it again: another round of mass demonstrations and another government on the brink of collapse. So far Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali has been unable to fulfil his vow to oversee the formation of a new government, a move which has interestingly failed to come to fruition in large part due to his own Islamist political party, Ennahda. Indeed, Ennahda, which maintains the lion’s share of control in the three-party government, initially rejected Jebali’s proposal on 07 February 2013, to institute a new “non-partisan” technocrat-filled government. Undeterred by this setback, Jebali promised to speak with representatives from all political parties on 15 February 2013, in order see whether there is any life left in his fledgling political proposition. Whilst Tunisian leaders await the outcome of the back door negotiations, some international investors have been left shaken, wondering what lies in store for Maghreb nation that was long considered the litmus test for the region’s ability to transition into a successful democracy.
The Last Straw
The latest political upheaval began with a bang: In an incident which made headlines the world over, one of the country’s leading opposition leaders and long-time critic of the powerful ruling Ennahda Party, Chokri Belaid, was gunned down outside his home on 06 February 2013. As news of the targeting killing spread throughout Tunisia, thousands began pouring onto the streets to voice their outrage over the popular leftist leader’s death. The general unrest which soon followed forced the government to take an even more controversial approach, with Jebali announcing live on television that he would oversee the complete dissolution of Tunisia’s political system until further notice.
Meanwhile, the circumstances surrounding Belaid’s death, which some had originally attributed to be the work of more malicious members of Ennahda, has since become as complex as the Tunisian Government itself. Some Tunisians have now started accusing affiliates of the rising secular party, Nidaa Tounes, of being behind his murder, allegations which it has naturally denied. Whoever the ‘mastermind’ is, Belaid’s death was really just the “final straw” for a government already teetering on the edge of the political abyss. Indeed, there had been warning signs of an impending collapse within the troika (a group of three political parties, that of Ennahda, Ettakatol and Congrès pour la République) for months. As far back as October 2012, The Inkerman Group had noted that the coalition was on the verge of collapse due in large part to the continuous bickering between the three groups, with those not in Ennahda accusing the majority party of siphoning away power from the coalition.
Turmoil in the Troika – The Fault of Ennahda?
Ennahda’s rise to power has been met with much controversy. Whilst the party portrays itself to be democratic and moderate, over the past year analysts could not help but paint a more complex picture of Ennahda as an increasingly powerful authority, which some had accused of being led by those aspiring to be the next ‘President Zein al Abidine Ben Ali’. In particular, suspicions began to mount as to the real intentions of party head Rachid Ghannouchi, who some political opponents allege has failed to quash rising Salafist influence whilst using the 2011 revolution for his own personal gains. Whilst these accusations cannot be proven, Ghannouchi’s reputation as a political powerhouse is undeniable. Case in point: the organisation that he helped found, Ennahda, is such a well-oiled political machine that it is even capable of getting Western reporters to apologise for tarnishing its reputation.
Ennahda’s (and Ghannouchi’s) distinction as being a powerful political force is well known. But how will this play into Jebali’s lofty vision of a “non-partisan” technocrat-filled government, which he hopes to see in place until the election (and ultimately the constitution) is established? For starters, aside from Jebali, most members of Ennahda are likely to need some serious convincing to join in on the PM’s proposed plans. Ghannouchi himself has already voiced concern over Jebali’s proposal, arguing that the new government should, instead, be filled with both “politicians and technocrats”. Given Ghannouchi’s ability to pull strings behind the scenes, Jebali may be forced to compromise on his ambitions. Of course giving into all of Ennahda’s demands may come at a price. Indeed, Jebali has just narrowly won over the support of President Moncef Marzouki’s Congrès pour la République (CPR) Party, which, after initially withdrawing from the coalition, later promised to give government talks a chance for “another week” on 11 February 2013. (This is a considerable feat, given that Jebali and Marzouki have been at odds over a number of issues, not least of which includes the fact that Jebali extradited ex-Libyan prime minister Baghdadi Mahmoudi in May 2012 without giving President Marzouki prior notice.) In addition to upsetting some within CPR, succumbing to some of Ennahda’s more obstinate leaders may also irritate members of the left-wing Ettakatol Party, who appear reluctant to work with the moderate Islamist organisation.
THE NEXT CHAPTER
So what next for Jebali, and better yet, Tunisia? Going forward, it looks like Jebali will have a lot on his plate with regard to ensuring that his dream of a “non partisan” coalition comes to fruition. And he will have to do so quickly: any further delay is likely to steer away investors already in fear over the rising influence of Islamist extremists in Tunisia. But if anyone can ensure some semblance of comprise, it is Jebali. Indeed, Jebali has already survived numerous political infighting, including his near dismissal in July 2012; and he can do so again. The hard part,then, is tackling Tunisia as a whole. Even if Jebali manages to calm the storm within the government, he will have to work harder to alleviate the concerns of his countrymen who are suffering from a lack of occupational opportunities and a sense of dismay over the perceived failure of their revolution. To be sure, the jobless rate across the country currently stands at 18%, with unemployment for graduates remaining at a staggering 35%, a figure which does not bode well for a country where 50% of the population is under the age of thirty. In the end, these numbers point to more demonstrations, some of which may become outright bloody, especially as most young people have indicated a sense of disenfranchisement as well as a growing polarisation from the older, “out-of-touch” leadership, which appears to be perpetually in a state of political infighting.