Calls for a coalition government in Tunisia ignore reality (Nejib Ayachi, The Daily Star, 12/12/2014)

Calls for a coalition government in Tunisia ignore reality

 The insistence on the part of some officials in the United States, Europe and the Arab world, as well as Middle Eastern and foreign policy “experts” in Washington and elsewhere, that the Tunisian secular and centrist party Nidaa Tounes should form a coalition with the Islamist Ennahda party is unwarranted. Nidaa Tounes, alongside other liberal and progressive parties, just defeated Ennahda in parliamentary elections, and its leader is expected to win the presidential election this month. The argument is that the party should form a coalition with Ennahda for the sake of reconciliation and stability. Many Tunisians believe the proposal ignores political realities in their country and is inconsiderate political meddling in their affairs.

If Tunisian society was recently, and intensely, polarized along secular and Islamist lines, it is not “divided,” and doesn’t need “reconciliation.” This is not Libya, Syria or Iraq, or even Egypt. It is an old, unified and homogenous society, at least ethnically and religiously, whose main Islamist party is actually playing by the democratic rules. The Islamists’ inclusion in the political sphere, a major concern for U.S. policymakers and their advisers in academia and elsewhere, is not an issue in Tunisia. Ennahda is already integrated into the political system, skillfully playing the political game. It has stated on numerous occasions that it accepts the election results. If there are divisions, they are economic in nature, with the regions of the interior facing the highest levels of social and economic deprivation.

In fact, the priority for most Tunisians is not to impose absolute and uncompromising secularism at any cost, nor is it to introduce medieval Shariah law, and even less to establish a theocracy. The three-year transition under an Islamist-led government was characterized by mismanagement of the affairs of state with catastrophic consequences for the economy and an increase in radical Islamist militancy, violence and the emergence of terrorism practically unknown in Tunisia until then.

This was also a period of intense debate and the successful overcoming of major crises. Tunisians have taken fundamental steps in building a genuine, inclusive and democratic political system and institutions, based on one of the most progressive constitutions by global standards. Their priority now is to see real improvements in terms of their security and socio-economic conditions, and to be able to live in dignity and peace.

External pressure to form a coalition government that includes the Islamists is inconsiderate of the Tunisians’ will. Those who are exerting such pressure disregard the decision of a majority of voters who, in widely recognized free and fair elections, rejected the Islamists and their incompetence, as well as their reactionary agenda. Such pressure is also patronizing, adhering to a notion that Arabs and Muslims should include religion in their politics.

Tunisia is well advanced on the path of democratic reforms. Its achievements in terms of fundamental freedoms and human rights are substantial. Civil society is highly mobilized and vibrant, and won’t make it easy for any power in place, Islamist or secular, to reverse the democratic process.

Insisting on a phony secular-Islamist divide of Tunisian society that needs reconciliation and a coalition government to transcend differences can only be perceived as promoting the Islamists’ interest in remaining on the political stage and aiming to protect its leaders. Some of these leaders may face legal action for alleged corruption and support for terrorism once legislative and presidential powers are concentrated in the secular parties.

The pressure to form a coalition can also be seen as an attempt to deviate attention from the persistent underlying socio-economic problems that caused the Arab Spring. It is these unsolved problems that may lead to instability and other uprisings, and that are the real threat to the democratic process.

What Tunisians expect is the formation of a coherent and competent government that, with the support of parliament, will tackle the pressing issue of insecurity; will continue to strengthen the rule of law; will reform the justice and security systems to become more respectful of human rights and more professional and efficient; and will improve governance altogether.

Tunisians expect such a government to reassess past economic policies pushed by the so-called Washington Consensus, and put into motion a paradigm shift in the country’s economic development model. This involves placing the welfare of all Tunisians at the heart of policy, and developing domestic productive capacities that create jobs and prioritize satisfaction of domestic needs, not only those of an often elusive global market.

Given these considerations, if a coalition government were to be formed, it should be with smaller liberal and progressive parties, such as the Popular Front, that won the parliamentary elections alongside Nidaa Tounes. Such a coalition would be best placed to devise an inclusive and equitable economic growth model, and rally domestic public support, particularly from powerful unions and among working people, the poor and other disadvantaged Tunisians. This approach will eventually bring about genuine social stability, not a coalition government with the Islamists.

The Islamists of Ennahda have different options to show that they are serious about respecting democratic rules and the will of the people expressed in elections, and about solving security and socio-economic problems for the benefit of all. Until now this hasn’t been their priority. In addition to reining in their ideological friends who resort to violence, they can use their influence in Parliament, without being part of a governing coalition.

The democratic process should run its course unimpeded. If the causes of the Arab Spring in Tunisia are not addressed effectively by the new government, with or without the Islamists we may witness a second phase in the Tunisian revolution.

Nejib Ayachi is president of the Maghreb Center. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR. – See more at:

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