Tunisia’s coalition government, its first to emerge from free and fair elections, has been on a steep learning curve through its first year in office. In the October 2011 vote for a constituent assembly, the Islamists of the Nahda (‘Renaissance’) party reaped the gains of their unflinching opposition to the deposed regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, but the credit this brought them is wearing thin as economic recovery lags. In the parliamentary and presidential elections planned for 2013, Nahda will struggle to repeat its resounding success of last year.
The party has had to adapt rapidly to operating in a democracy, and the Tunisian media, much of which remains in the same hands as before the revolution, has been eager to jump on its mistakes. One such mistake was Nahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi’s failure to put enough clear blue sky between his party and the extreme conservatism of certain radical Salafist preachers.
Salafists have emerged as key drivers in a change in the climate for freedom of expression that troubles many non-religious Tunisians. On three occasions, starting with marches against a screening of the film Persepolis just before the 2011 election, Salafist activists were able to swing a surprisingly broad swathe of public opinion behind their stance that Islam was under attack and needed to be defended. Salafist preacher Abou Iyadh, leader of Tunisia’s own Ansar Ash-Sharia group, has attempted to exercise leverage outside party politics. Other Salafists have formed parties to present candidates in next year’s elections. Nahda hopes the elections will reveal that their true level of support is less than some media coverage has suggested.
A turning point came in September, when a demonstration headed by Salafists degenerated into chaos and arson at the United States embassy, with four demonstrators killed. The damage inflicted on relations with the US was considerable but not irreparable. Washington is a leading backer of the project for a democratic and prosperous Tunisia; the Obama administration is betting that Tunisia can prove a success story to inspire other Arab countries. With Europe — Tunisia’s main export market and source of job-generating investment — wracked by crisis, outside financial aid will continue to be key to underpinning stability through 2013.
Nahda politicians have pledged a tightening of security, emphasizing that this will not be at the expense of fair trials and civil liberties for all Tunisians, including Salafists. Guaranteeing those rights will not be easy, with the country’s security services and judicial system still in upheaval, having been the main instruments of repression under Ben Ali. Two young men, who were detained after September’s demonstration at the US embassy, died in November after a two-month hungerstrike protesting their innocence and demanding to be set free.
Constituent assembly members have honed their political skills in the same parliamentary chamber once occupied by Ben Ali’s yes-men. The Islamist party has shown a willingness to compromise over the draft constitution, accepting a system in which a directly elected president will have certain executive powers. Nahda would have preferred executive powers concentrated in the office of prime minister.
The mooted June 30 date for the 2013 election may slip toward the autumn, as a new electoral commission is put in place to supervise a closely-fought vote. Nahda will seek to hold together its fragile alliance with the center-left Congress for the Republic and the Ettakatol party, which reassures both domestic and international audiences. Its main challenger will be a new party, Nida Tounes (‘Tunisian Call’), headed by last year’s interim prime minister, the 86-year-old Beji Caid Sebsi. Claiming to have “technocratic” expertise, Nida Tounes will seek to build an anti-Islamist bloc that includes figures who worked with Ben Ali but who are regarded as having avoided major corruption scandals. Chronic unemployment in the western and southern regions will, through next year, weigh heavily on the hopes and dreams of the younger generation. The grumble that “nothing has changed” will still be heard.
Whatever government is in power will struggle to keep a lid on tensions, especially when these are stoked by political opponents. Both old and new political elites have, however, repeatedly deployed the language of “consensus-building” to bring the country back from the brink. The much-heralded process of transitional justice, addressing rights abuses of past decades, will proceed cautiously, and there may still be a certain lack of clarity on prosecutions for corruption.
Eileen Byrne reports from Tunis for the London-based Guardian and The Sunday Times