Analysis: Tunisia pushes the reset button

By Simon Allison 8 February 2013

The atmosphere of fear and suspicion in Tunisia exploded into violent street protests on Monday. Unable to see a way out of the mess, the Prime Minister tried to dissolve the government and re-start the laborious process of remaking the Tunisian state. Not everyone in his party thinks this is a good idea, and public pressure is ratcheting up with a massive general strike planned for Thursday. It’s a situation worth watching closely, because where Tunisia goes, Egypt and Libya invariably follow. By SIMON ALLISON

When it comes to the Arab Spring-turned-Winter, Tunisia sets the tone. It was here, in this nation which is barely a sliver on the map compared to its enormous North African neighbours, that frustrated vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, catalysing a chain reaction which caused revolutions in three countries and turned global geopolitics on its head.

Tunisia was the first of these countries to take to the streets in mass protest action. Tunisia was the first to get rid of its dictator president, with Zine El Abidine Ben Ali scurrying ignominiously into Saudi Arabian exile. Tunisia was the first to free political prisoners, the first to hold elections, the first to appoint a government led by Islamists.

Sure enough, where Tunisia has gone, Egypt and Libya have followed. The context in each country is different, the details radically so, but there’s a strong argument to be made that all three revolutions have followed a similar arc, with Tunisia always a little ahead of the curve.

And so we observe what happens in Tunisia with enormous anticipation – and, it must be said, trepidation. For on the evidence of this week, Tunisia’s progress is stalling.

Although they’ve been brewing for quite some time, the troubles started in earnest on Wednesday morning, as moderate, secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid set off for work. Belaid heads the Party of Democrat Patriots, a not particularly significant political organisation with just one seat in parliament. Belaid, however, has made a name for himself as an outspoken critic of the coalition government, led by Islamist party Ennahda; and as a prime mover in the secular opposition’s attempts to unite itself.

On Wednesday, just as Belaid was leaving home, a motorcycle pulled up near his house and shot him at close range. Shot him dead.

The public reaction was swift and vicious. Thousands of people took to the streets in cities across the country, shouting exactly the same slogan they used against Ben Ali in 2011: “The people want the fall of the regime”. In Tunis, crowds surrounded the ambulance carrying Belaid’s corpse while police attempted to disperse them with tear gas. At least one policeman died in what many media outlets are describing as a riot.

To understand the depth of public anger, a little context is necessary. Tunisia is led by an Islamist group, Ennahda, which was by far the most popular party in the elections. Not popular enough to obtain a majority, however, so it was forced into a coalition with two other parties, both of which can broadly be described as centre-left and secular. Not that this was a problem for Ennahda: it has always maintained it is a moderate Islamist party, intent on respecting the rule of law and creating an inclusive, transparent government.

Not everyone is happy with this compromise arrangement. The liberal, secular segment of Tunisia’s population is very suspicious of Ennahda’s intentions, and worry that the party will gradually introduce strict Sharia law. More hardline Islamists, on the other hand, are less than thrilled with the moderate position and some have decided to do something about it.

“In the past few months Islamist thugs have been taking the law into their own hands,” writes The Economist. “Islamist ‘committees to defend the revolution’, setting themselves up in local districts, have incurred increasing hostility from more secular types. In December they violently broke up a trade union rally. They have also gone out of their way to attack ancient shrines, deeming them to be idolatrous. Since the revolution of 2011 that overthrew the country’s secular-minded dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, at least 40 have been set alight or damaged.”

Tunisia’s liberals are also suspicious that the government is turning a blind eye to these crimes; that it is keeping up the moderate pretence while tacitly encouraging others to do its dirty work. The government’s critics included Belaid, who said on TV the night before he was killed that Ennahda was inciting the violence, and that “all those who oppose Ennahda become targets of violence”.

Belaid’s murder – the first political assassination of post-revolutionary Tunisia – exploded like a grenade in this atmosphere of fear and suspicion. The protestors that poured into the streets on Wednesday wasted no time in blaming the government, directing most of the vitriol at Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi.

And so, having obviously lost the confidence of a significant portion of the population, and having made little headway in getting on with the business of laying the foundations for a new Tunisian state (there’s still no sign of a new constitution, for instance), the government did the honourable thing and dissolved itself.

“After the failure of negotiations between parties on a cabinet reshuffle, I have decided to form a small technocrat government,” said Prime Minister Hamada Jebali. He added: “The murder of Belaid is a political assassination and the assassination of the Tunisian revolution.”

Jebali was to remain Prime Minister, with no word yet on the composition of this new, temporary administration whose main job will be to organise new elections, starting the whole process again.

But by Thursday, the situation had changed yet again. Apparently, Jebali had not consulted his Ennahda colleagues before making his big announcement, and they don’t think it’s a smart move.

“The prime minister did not ask the opinion of his party,” said Abdelhamid Jelassi, Ennahda’s vice-president. “We in Ennahda believe Tunisia needs a political government now. We will continue discussions with other parties about forming a coalition government.”

Amid this uncertainty, public pressure is ratcheting up, with a mass general strike planned by Tunisia’s trade union federation – the first such strike since 1976. “There is now deep uncertainty and anxiety about how events will unfold,” wrote the Guardian.

As the situation continues to develop, it’s hard to say exactly what this means for Tunisia – and for Egypt and Libya. What is becoming obvious is that the process of remaking the state in each of those countries is hamstrung by the wildly divergent views of the various groups competing to lead the transition, coupled with a near complete lack of trust between various stakeholders and parties. Primarily, this has taken the form of antagonism between secular liberals looking to establish a western-style democracy and hardline Islamists who want a state based on Sharia law. The moderate Islamist groups, which have enjoyed such popular success, find themselves somewhere in the middle, but without the credibility to guarantee stability.

As Prime Minister Jebali has discovered, this is a near-impossible position to be in, and his solution – to effectively push the reset button – might be a sensible one. It’s unlikely, however, that he’ll be allowed to start over, leaving Tunisia’s revolution looking especially precarious right now. DM

Read more:

  • Tunisia: Puritans on the attack in the Economist
  • Tunisian opposition leader shot dead in the Guardian

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