– Tunisia: The Islamist-led democratic transition and the assassination of the opposition leader Chokri Belaid

May 10, 2013     (Adapted translation of Maghreb Center President Nejib Ayachi interview with the Algerian daily L’Expression, 04-20-2013)

Question: Tunisia is a country for which you have a particular affinity. What is your perception of the situation there, with the assassination of the liberal activist Chokri Belaid?

Answer: The assassination of the popular opposition leader Chokri Belaid, who was an outspoken critic of the Islamist party Ennahda currently in power in Tunisia, was made possible by the highly charged political atmosphere that has developed in the country in the last several months. This is due to the intensification of Tunisian society’s polarization between Islamists and non-Islamists. Even if some radically secular segments of society and political parties are not to be totally exonerated, this atmosphere is largely the result of Ennahda’s use and abuse of religious populism and identity politics, and its various attempts to impose its Islamist project, in small doses and surreptitiously, while stating that it doesn’t want to include sharia law in the Constitution as a basis of legislation or roll back women rights. This atmosphere was made worse by the deplorable results of Ennahda’s management of Tunisia’s democratic transition, with the Constitution’s drafting process dragging for over 18 months now, thus contributing to sowing fear, uncertainty and doubt; the deterioration of the economic crisis triggering even higher rates of unemployment and inflation; and, last but not least, a notable deterioration of the security situation.

It is this climate, also characterized by the recourse to violence on the part of radical Islamists benefiting from the Islamist-led government leniency, which led to the assassination of the left-wing activist Chokri Belaid—the first political assassination in Tunisia since its independence from France in 1956. This has triggered a crisis that poses a serious threat to a difficult but relatively peaceful democratic transition. 

Q: How about the Islamist-dominated government’s response to the crisis?

A: To cope with the crisis, former Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, who is from the Ennahda party but also willing to compromise, has proposed in order to tame the opposition and broaden support for his government, the formation of a new government mostly comprised of  independent technocrats to manage the affairs of the country until the next elections, by the end of this year or early 2014. This is an arrangement that the opposition has long called for, for political but also efficiency reasons, because Ennahda’s ministers distinguished themselves by their incompetence and poor performance. Jebali’s own party rejected his request, and he was forced to resign. A new prime minister, also from Ennahda, Ali Larayedh, has been appointed. Larayedh is the former Interior Minister in the Jebali government. He is considered a hardline Islamist and no more capable than his other colleagues, and also known for his leniency vis-a-vis fellow radical Islamists infringing the law.

Ennahda, in power for 18 months, has been weakened by a succession of crises and is under pressure from civil society and opposition parties as well as its secular allies to change course. It has eventually consented to make some concessions and abandon its claims over the so-called ministries of sovereignty (Interior, Foreign Affairs, and Justice), which have been entrusted to independent technocrats. It should be noted in passing that since Ennahda gained power, it has appointed a large number of its supporters to key positions within the government, at the central and local levels, thus threatening the neutrality of Tunisia’s civil service, and even though this kind of practice is associated in the mind of most Tunisians with the former regime, and is of course antithetical to the principles of good governance, which require that recruitment and promotion within the civil service be based on merit. It should be pointed out here in passing that implementing the rule of law, as well as good governance, including reforming the justice and security sectors, have long been demanded by the secular democratic opposition in Tunisia as well as by its main international economic partners and donors.

The new Prime Minister promised that the new Constitution will be completed soon, and elections held in the coming months, and that security will be restored and the conditions for economic recovery ensured. However, this remains to be seen, because he did not specify how this would be achieved, or what concessions his party was willing to make to move the democratic transition process forward, especially with regard to the drafting of the Constitution. In fact, we find the same ruling coalition with Ennahda as the dominant party, albeit somewhat weakened. Let’s point out here that if it were not for the partisan approach adopted by Ennahda since its election, and given the exceptional circumstances the country is going through, it would have been possible to form a wide coalition that includes most of the political forces in Tunisia, with a clear agenda established consensually, with the overall objectives to complete the drafting of a truly democratic Constitution, restore security and revive the economy. This, in addition to initiating reforms to move forward the institution of the rule of law, including justice and security sectors reforms. There is indeed no reason to at least start in earnest the design -through a large and inclusive process- the implementation of these reforms, as they are among the main objectives of the Tunisian revolution. 

Q: We are indeed under the impression that Ennahda is not in a hurry to implement reforms.

A:  Establishing the rule of law, including insuring judicial independence, reforming the justice and security sectors, and more generally the state structures according to the principles of good democratic governance are not priorities for Ennahda. The Islamist party has introduced minor adjustments in that sense, but, overall, seems quite comfortable for the time being and as long as it can infiltrate it, with the system it inherited from Ben Ali, the previous autocratic ruler; that is to say, highly centralized and prone to authoritarianism. This, even if at the same time Islamists have been undermining  the Tunisian state institutions for ideological reasons, because many of them still don’t believe in the very idea of the nation-state…

Q: In the meantime, this kind of situation is favorable to the spread of political-religious extremism, isn’t it?

A: Of course, on the whole, the situation prevailing in Tunisia can only boost political and religious extremism, which is fueled by Salafist groups present there, without Ennahdas finding fault with it. These groups are indeed allowed to spread out, and in some cases to set up, with impunity, operations of intimidation and aggression against elements of civil society and members of opposition political parties. In addition, with the consent of some of its leaders and the support of the radical wing within the Islamist party in power, these extremist groups have been able to exercise control over dozens of mosques in the country, where they distill their extremist ideology to the poor, unemployed, and frustrated young people. These mosques, especially in underprivileged neighborhoods, become indoctrination grounds for violent jihadism, and this is how you end up finding such a high number of young Tunisian jihadists fighting alongside their coreligionists in Syria, Mali and Algeria (in Amenas).

Q: How do you envision the future

A: Although the way forward might be arduous, I believe that Tunisia will be able to build a pluralistic and inclusive democracy, thanks to the cohesiveness and maturity of its people known for its moderation particularly regarding religious matters, and for its willingness to compromise; the size and awareness of its middle-class; the exceptional vigilance and mobilization of its civil society; and the fact that the democratic secular opposition is gaining ground by the day according to most surveys. Thus, Tunisians will soon be able to build a democracy that integrates all the sensitivities present in their society, but away from extremist politico-religious ideologies such as Wahhabism which seems quite appealing to a certain number of Islamists in the ruling party, Ennahda, as well as French-inspired radical secularism favored by a few on the secular side.

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