Tunisia: who serves the violence?

By Kristina Kausch, Head of The Middle East Programme at FRIDE

Published on : www.fride.org
After last week’s targeted political assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaïd in Tunis, the Arab Spring’s so far most successful transition appears to have turned sour. Mr. Belaïd’s death was but the final spark that lit public anger over the long-standing systematic violence against opposition figures and other critics of the Nahda government committed by Salafist mobs over the past year. Most of these attacks were clearly not spontaneous outbreaks of violence, but planned attacks against specific individuals, as well as ordinary citizens who did not comply with the attackers’ ideals of lifestyle. The opposition, including the widow of the deceased, directly accuses Ennahda of being guilty of Belaïd’s assassination. A notorious militant Salafist group, the ‘League for the Protection of the Revolution’, responsible for recent past violent acts, has been enjoying praise and protection from Ennahda’s leadership. Many believe the group follows the party’s direct orders, while others accuse the party at the very least of complicity trough inaction.

Last week’s assassination might have been the last straw that broke the camel’s back in Tunisian citizens’ patience. It sparked once again massive protests across the country and put a government already weakened by weeks of coalition squabbles in the defensive. It also solidified the growing split in the ruling Ennahda party between the faction of Prime Minister Jebali on the one hand, and that of party leader Ghannouchi on the other. On the evening of the assassination, Jebali announced on TV that he would replace the current troika government with one made up of technocrats – according to the latest polls, a decision embraced by three-quarters of Tunisians. Jebali, however, had not cleared this decision with either the coalition partners nor his party, prompting the latter to issue an official communiqué that Ennahda was not backing the prime minister’s decision. Although there is no legal clarity over the competencies in the current situation, it is consensual that any newly-installed government has to be approved by the acting parliament, the National Constituent Assembly (NCA). Given that the troika government including Ennahda, the Congress for the Republic (CPR) and the Ettakatol party together have a majority of 55 per cent in the NCA, it matters little what PM Jebali declares on TV if his proposal to form a technocratic government is then outvoted by his party and its allies. That said, according to rumours among NAC deputies last week, the first defection of a Nahda deputy from the parliamentary bloc two weeks ago might herald further defections. In the meantime, Ghannouchi announced the formation of a ‘national unity government’ by the end of this week, but it is uncertain whether this will satisfy the outraged public, which demands more radical change.

Opposition politicians and activists last week in Tunis were convinced that Ennahda aims to gain time and hold on to power to push back elections (originally planned for 2013) as far as possible to establish its sympathisers in key posts in ministries and state institutions as a means to ensure its sustained political dominance in the future. Undeniably, the troika government bears the heavy burden of the first post-revolutionary government, whose chances to be re-elected (as experiences from other transitions show) are close to zero. Having been elected on an enthusiastic ‘anti-regime ticket’, Ennahda’s credit as the ‘Anti-Ben-Ali’ has by now worn off. Not only has the party failed to deliver on its principal electoral promises – citizens’ pressing social and economic demands remain largely dissatisfied – but also the party’s democratic credibility has suffered substantially due to its lax handling of Salafist violence and its perceived attempts to re-write the Tunisian societal order. The anti-Nahda alliance headed by the party of former PM Caïd Essebsi, Nidaa Tounes, has within record time grown into the first serious electoral challenger to the Islamists. With popular discontent over Ennahda’s government on record high, elections in 2013 are not in the party’s interest.

A substantial postponement of the elections is problematic in several ways. Firstly, the NAC (and hence the government) functions in a legal void, because the Constituent Assembly’s mandate of one year has already expired. In consequence, the ‘electoral legitimacy’ on which Ghannouchi bases his rejection of Jebali’s proposal of a technocratic government does not actually exist. Secondly, the constant crisis of Tunisia’s governing coalition over the past months effectively stalls the troika’s governing ability – quite the contrary to the united, efficient government the fragile transition context needs. Thirdly, as this week’s outrage over Mr. Belaïd’s assassination shows, tensions accumulated over the past year are rising social mobilisation: public patience with the government is coming to an end. Ennahda will not be able to steer the country through 2013 on mere appeasement maneouvres.

Regardless of whether Ennahda had or had not a direct hand in the killing of Chokri Belaïd, the Islamist party has been the main benefactor of the low-level insecurity that has haunted Tunisia over the past year, apparently aimed at silencing the opposition and re-establishing the ‘culture of fear’ among Tunisians that served Ben Ali so well to keep opposition at bay over decades. However, escalations are not in Ennahda’s interest, either. After 2011 Tunisians are no longer easily intimidated; they have a tolerance limit. When this limit is overstepped – and it seems to be on the verge – Tunisians may well oust another power-loving government.