It will be all hands on deck for Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party Nahda this week, as the three-party coalition it leads strives to hold a steady course towards parliamentary and probably presidential elections next year. Nahda's adversaries have been loudly opining that the country is in the hands of incompetents at best, and dangerous ideologues at worst. In the weeks building up to the first anniversary of the October 23 election, they have been upping their calls for a new government.
The most outspoken among critics of the Nahda-led government is the Nida Tounes (‘Tunisian Call’) party, headed by the 85-year-old Beji Caid Sebsi. Founded earlier this year it has yet to face an electoral test, but Caid Sebsi’s political pedigree dates back to the time of the country’s first post-independence President Habib Bourguiba, when he was a steely interior minister.
Through most of last year, following the overthrow of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s regime in January 2011, Caid Sebsi was prime minister in an unelected interim government. That administration succeeded in organizing the election last October, which was deemed generally free and fair. The outcome was a Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution, ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections that will be the next step in the transition to democracy.
The Islamists of Nahda, riding high on the respect they won as dissidents during the darkest days of the Ben Ali regime, emerged as easily the largest bloc in the assembly. Nahda’s coalition government includes two non-religious partners, likewise headed by respected former opposition activists. Yet, a year on, the assembly has yet to come up with a draft constitution.
Ever since it took office, the first genuinely Islamist-led government in North Africa has been buffeted by strong crosswinds and a healthy cacophony of criticism. These winds sometimes appear to be fanned by those who want Nahda to go into the next elections badly discredited. In recent weeks, a leaked video has shown Nahda’s leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, advising Salafist interlocutors to bide their time because “the secularists” still control the media and the economy, and “the army is not assured and the police are not assured”.
Then, last Friday, an audio recording surfaced that seemed calculated to increase strains withing the ruling coalition. It featured Nahda’s prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, chatting with Caid Sebsi last December. Among other things, the two men agreed that Tunisia’s president, Moncef Marzouki, need not be consulted over any extradition of former Libyan Prime Minister Baghdadi Mahmoudi. Six months later, when Jebali did allow Mahmoudi to be sent back to Libya, Marzouki furiously complained he should have had a say in the decision, and the coalition almost fell apart.
Government figures say the leaked recordings are part of an undercover operation to stoke tension. Also fueling tensions were clashes on October 18 between government supporters and opposition activists in the southern town of Tataouine, which claimed the life of a Nida Tounes supporter.
In proposing that the Nahda government be wound down, or at least widened to include other parties, Nida Tounes has found common cause with leftists traditionally at odds with Islamists, and with centrists such as the Joumhouri (‘Republican’) Party of Nejib Chebbi. These parties are still smarting from disappointing showings in last year’s election, when they failed to make traction among less educated, often rural voters.
While Nida Tounes argues that the Jebali government is economically incompetent and is appeasing bullying Salafists, Nahda views Nida Tounes as just the old regime in new clothes. Caid Sebsi is seen as an (admittedly engaging) front man for an attempt by those who have lost out politically or economically from the revolution to claw back ground lost.
Internationally, relations between Tunisia and the United States are at a low after Salafist protesters on September 14 rampaged through parts of the US embassy. And although some tourists returned to Tunisian sun loungers this summer, many were surely deterred by reports of Salafist violence.
The country has been without a finance minister since Hocine Dimassi resigned in July arguing that the administration’s populist, free-spending ways were unsustainable. And away from the headlines, the postponing of investment decisions, as political uncertainty continues, is weighing on prospects for an economic recovery.
Ordinary hard-pressed Tunisians, seeking to fill their Eid shopping baskets, are fast losing patience with a political elite that seems better at generating tantalizing news stories than at taking the country forward. Come the next election, some say, the choice is an unappetizing one between the moralizing of an Islamist party that appears to keep some disturbingly undemocratic company, and the Nida Tounes’s dubious claims to have the "goals of the revolution" close to its heart.
Eileen Byrne reports from Tunis for the London-based Guardian and The Sunday Times.