Tunisia is one of, if not the only success stories linked to that intense period of reform that followed the so-called Arab Springs. In spite of lasting social tension, security fears and economic depression (especially in the south of the country), when analysing events involving government change in Tunisia, one can’t but come to the conclusion that is facing the first stable democracy in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa).
History of Transition
The Tunisian Revolution, according to the local narrative known as thawra al-hurriyya wa’l-karama (liberty and dignity revolution), was above all aimed at dismantling the policies of a neo-patrimonial regime, such as that of Ben Ali. The dissolution of the RCD party (Constitutional Democratic Rally) and the president’s flight, alongside the emergence of new players such as Islamists belonging to al-Nahda, sanctioned the renewal of the political system as well as its revitalisation. As happens in pluralist democracies, the collapse of the cumbersome regime allowed the upsurge of a political arena consisting of a polyphony of voices, often in opposition and in a constant search for consensus. For example, the troika that led the country during the first phase of the transition, the constitutional one (2011-2015), was formed by dissimilar parties that were, however, united by the shared desire to equip Tunisia with a new constitution. Al-Nahda played the leading role, supported by a compact and cohesive parliamentary majority; the CPR (Congress for the Republic) led by Moncef Marzouqi, ideologically close to al-Nahda’s Islamists, turned out to be less ideological and, finally, Ettakatol, led by the former interim president Mustapha Ben Jafar expressed liberal ideas and was therefore less aligned with the front formed by the first two parties. In order to counterbalance all this, the liberal-secular NidaTunis party founded by the current president, el-Beji Qaid Essebsi and many key players on the Tunisian political stage, such as Mohsen Marzouk, emerged almost immediately. This party was created with explicit anti-Islamist containment intentions, but already during the constituent stages there were many signs of détente between al-Nahda’s leader Rashid al-Ghannouchi and Essebsi.
Following the adoption of the new constitution and the election of the current parliament and president of the republic, between 2014 and 2015 the party system experienced a number of changes. Firstly, the disappearance of Ettakatol and the CPR’s loss of consensus, added to Nida’s growth and the appearance of other parties such as the UPL (Liberal Patriotic Union) led by the magnate Slim Riahi, as well as the arrival in parliament of the radical Left with the People’s Front. This party already had a number of representatives in the Constituent Assembly, but in the current parliament boasts 15 MPs. Furthermore, on a collision course with the president’s son Hafedh Essebsi, Mohsen Marzouk, representative of Nida Tunis’ trade-unionist wing, recently decided to form his own autonomous political party called Machrou Tunis.
In other words, the Tunisian scenario has evolved in the course of just a few years, moving from being an unclear system of small battle-hardened parties also fighting among themselves, to becoming a basically bi-polar system that is diluted by the presence of other minor parties capable of gathering enough votes to represent a tertium non datur and therefore influence negotiations.
There is no doubt that Tunisia’s political transition has also benefitted from the prudent attitude of Islamists of al-Nahda. This party, on the one hand has been capable of attracting a relative majority of votes in the elections for the Constituent Assembly, thanks to a powerful and argumentative election campaign. On the other hand, the party was able to exploit its image of resistance and insurgency against the Ben Ali regime “boasting” a number of candidates (later elected) among the ranks of those politically persecuted and exiled by the previous regime. But the nahdaoui were able to show significant ability in adapting, as well as pragmatism by increasingly distancing themselves from the movement’s original nucleus, the MTI (Movement of Islamic Tendency) to the point of becoming a party that supported so-called Islamic democracy. This was made possible thanks to the experienced talent shown by al-Ghannouchi and his continuous work of ijtihad as well as the renewal of the party’s political agenda.
At the last congress, held in the spring of 2016, al-Nahda’s leadership decided to cut ties with the past dictated by political Islam and proposed a clear separation between the religious and the political spheres. This means that all al-Nahda members wishing to pursue a political career and run as candidates for the republic’s institutions must prove they have abandoned their religious ambitions such as, for example, stop proselytising or acting as imams. Vice versa, those wishing to continue with their work studying Islamic sciences will not be permitted to hold state positions, just like al-Ghannouchi himself, who, since 2010, has never expected to be appointed to any position except that of party secretary.
However, al-Nahda’s political strategy is also characterised by a knowledgeable use of modern mass communication techniques, such as the new media and propaganda slogans. In other words, the party has proved to have reached levels of maturity in communications strategies that have made it the real party that can tip the scales in the country’s political arena. Internal problems faced by Nida Tunis, intensified by the scission of Marzouk’s faction, have certainly helped the Islamists who effectively control the most compact political group in parliament. In spite of this, al-Nahda has chosen to maintain a cautious attitude and, as happened during the first legislature, prefers to govern through coalition and co-optation rather than in a policy-making manner.
Technocrats in power
The last ingredient to be added to those described so far in the recipe that allowed the Tunisian transition to proceed without particular snags was the appointment of governments not linked to a particular party and without specific political characteristics. Following the election of the current parliament in 2014, when al-Nahda won 69 seats and Nida Tunis 86, the government was formed by Mehdi Jomaa, in power from January 29th, 2014 to February 6th, 2015. At the end of his mandate it was Habib Essid’s turn, prime minister from February 2015 to August 2016. The current prime minister is Yousef Chahed.
The transition from Jomaa to Essid coincided with the elections and therefore with the renewal of the house of representatives – the Constituent Assembly made way for the Ordinary Parliament (Majlis Nuwwab al-Shab or Assembly of the People’s Representatives). On this occasion it was considered necessary to renew political appointments and therefore remove the executive body. Essid was the first head of government to be appointed after the approval of the constitution, thereby marking a break not only with the old regime but also with the drafting of the constitution. In July 2016, his government experienced a vote of no confidence that brought it down. The most significant note of these turnovers lies in the mechanism of checks and balances between the powers of the state established by the new constitution, the litmus test of liberal constitutionalism. This process involves an extremely new element and one that is certainly of revolutionary importance meaning that, for now, the Tunisian political system is equipped with functioning instruments through which state power, especially that of the executive branch, can be restricted in its work by both the legislative and judiciary branches. Added to the rotation of technical executives specialised in the adoption of reforms considered necessary to re-launch the economy, this is certainly one of the most important steps taken towards total stabilisation, at least at a political level.
The economy’s transition appears to be far slower, although in spite of falling indexes in recent years, it seems to have found renewed confidence from markets and investors attracted by the country’s progressive normalisation and tax benefits that should stimulate the arrival of foreign capital.
The Tunisian transition is now entering its sixth year and is certainly showing signs of being a success. It is for these reasons that it is not rash to speak of this case as the only success story among the countries of the so-called Spring (Buldan al-Rabi’a). The constituent period, in addition to marking the adoption of a new constitution, also put right an identity “problem” with which Tunisia had evidently not yet dealt with. The Islamist forces, about which there were many doubts at the beginning of the transition, turned out to be far less interested in “Islamising” the country than had been feared, and far more interested instead in defending what they had already obtained in terms of civil and social rights. Furthermore, the “legitimisation” of al-Nahda allowed what other countries in the area have not yet achieved; the creation of an open political system in which the peaceful coexistence of different subjects is possible and in which the state is the arbitrator and guarantor. As far as the transition is concerned this is certainly the main success achieved since the creation of solid “statehood”, certainly the necessary precondition for all eventual future development.
Translated by Francesca Simmons