The Middle East Channel

Tunisia’s troubled talks

Tunisia’s troubled talks

Tunisia’s now suspended national dialogue talks have thus far failed to end the country’s political impasse triggered by the July 25 political assassination of leftist Popular Front Member of Parliament (MP) Mohamed Brahimi. The Ennahda led government had agreed to a conditional resignation and to sit with the opposition to arrive at a consensus candidate for yet another care-taker prime minister. Ennahda, however, is keen to demonstrate what its leader Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi has reassured his followers: they are only giving up the government and not power. This has only precipitated the latest round of political squabbling and as the November 15 deadline for the resignation of the Ennahda government looms, the opposition is threatening a return to street protests.

It is unclear if the ruling Troika and the opposition National Salvation Front (NSF) will agree on a consensus prime minister in time after weeks of deadlock. In light of the recent suspension of the talks, the certainty of Tunisia’s future political stability remains uncertain, and Ennahda’s place in it is an even more complicated question. The heated and fluid political environment can either be viewed as healthy dynamism unseen elsewhere in the region or rather a slow and painful road toward an inevitable outcome of confrontation like that of Egypt’s. 

The national dialogue is sponsored by four labor groups spearheaded by the powerful General Labor Union (UGTT) in what is called the quartet. The UGTT led the effort to offer a political reconciliation initiative after the assassination of Brahimi in July, which Ennahda ultimately accepted in principle by August. What has caused a great deal of confusion is that Ennahda said that it would only resign so long as the new constitution and election laws were passed and an election body selected. This has allowed Ennahda to behave as if it is still in control while the opposition deals with it as a party that has admitted to its own lack of legitimacy by agreeing to resign and thus has no authority to dictate the political roadmap.

Last week, the Ettakatol party of the ruling Troika, with the support of Ennahda, nominated 88-year-old Ahmed el-Mesteri for prime minister, and insisted on him. The opposition pushed for 77-year-old Mohamed al-Naser and stood its ground, but it found itself in an awkward position trying to articulate why it opposed Mesteri who they admitted had a respectable record of accomplishment. The no-nonsense Beji Caid Essebsi, leader of Nidaa Tounes, put it bluntly in various interviews that at least his party’s objection stemmed from the attitude of Ennahda in suggesting Mesteri as opposed to any real disagreement over his qualifications.

But the opposition discovered a thorn in its side when the centrist al-Joumhouri Party said that it too supported Mesteri with Naser and others being a part of the new cabinet. This would have been an opportunity for Ennahda to prove its point and move on, but it failed to capitalize on the possible splinter in the opposition and now al-Joumhouri seems to be back in the fold and even part of the chorus threatening street action.

Indeed, Ennahda’s leadership does not seem too worried about the results of this gridlock. When asked about how his party would react if the quartet picked its own prime minister and ignored the Troika, senior Ennahda leader and minister of health, Abdel Latif el-Mekki, responded by saying "we are Malikis [A Sunni school of religious law], and al-Malikiyya says: leave it be until it happens."

When it comes to the dialogue talks, Ghannouchi’s promise to his supporters that they are not giving up power with the prime minister’s resignation and that no government would be selected without Ennahda’s approval seems to hold for now.

As the talks were suspended, the country’s attention turned to ruptures in the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), where Ennahda still holds its power unchallenged. The Ennahda bloc had introduced amendments to the bylaws of the council that would lower the quorum needed to decide the assembly’s agenda. One amendment would also remove the need for the speaker Mustapha Ben Jaafar (who is from Ettakatol) to approve the agenda. These proposed changes are designed to allow the remaining Ennahda members to speed through the constitution and other measures as the talks over who heads the government drag on, another testament to Ghannouchi’s promise to his followers that they are merely giving up the government and not power. The amendments were described as amounting to a "coup" by the opposition and even MPs from Ettakatol joined a walkout of over 50 members last week.

This week the judiciary responded with a timely decision to annul the list of candidates for the elections body sent by the NCA for the second time this year. The court decision is a reminder of the potentially increasing role the judiciary can play in influencing the political roadmap.

The only remaining hope for the success of the political roadmap, despite bumps along the way, is for it to remain a purely political process. Although the danger of ideological bickering continues, underneath the surface, there is a dynamic political power play that sheds light on the ongoing reasons for the country’s political rift.

Ennahda’s opponents say that the party cannot be trusted for its doublespeak that promises reconciliation and resignation while engaging in divisive rhetoric and consolidating power in the NCA. As the national dialogue was set to start in late October, opposition parties in the umbrella NSF held mass rallies in an attempt to flex their street muscles despite a modest turnout. But many also went as far to demand a "second revolution" that would topple the rule of Islamists in Tunisia and reverse their political supremacy, which they view as the root cause of the failures of the past two years. Far left political activists like Adel el-Chewachi even appeared on the viciously anti-Islamist Egyptian satellite channel ONTV praising the political end of the Brotherhood in Egypt and wishing the same for Tunisia.

This far leftist strand in the opposition, specifically the Popular Front, may be overreaching and could facilitate the derailment of the national dialogue it accuses Ennahda of engineering. To this group, Ennahda only understands the language of pressure in negotiation and any attempts to meet it half way will only backfire. The more sophisticated critics accuse Ennahda of being like a "lazy student" who is constantly making excuses but in reality has no intention to study. But it is unclear that the Tunisian street has the same appetite as some in the political opposition for a return to street legitimacy or the prospect of street battles like those seen before the July coup in Egypt.

The opposition also directly blames Ennahda for the constant string of terrorist attacks and Salafi violence that has gripped the country since the revolution. But even as the Ennahda government moved to label the infamous Ansar al-Sharia Salafi group as a terrorist organization, its critics would not let go of the conspiracy that Ennahda is tacitly supporting or approving of its actions. The reality is that these Salafis are as much a threat to Ennahda as th
ey are to Tunisia’s secular forces.

In the charged and unconstructive atmosphere of conspiracies, many in Ennahda have also resorted to their own theories that elements in the security services may be behind the attacks in order to weaken the Islamist led government. This is something that Ghannouchi heavily insinuated in his latest op-ed, noting that Ennahda has been conveniently pushed to first have its prime minister, Hamid Jebali, resign, to give up key ministers, and now to give up the government all together due to two political assassinations by still unknown elements.

Political violence, terrorism, and assassinations have reshaped the relationship between Ennahda and the various opposition factions — especially those on the far left. The held belief by both sides that they are the intended victims of the violence has done more than just complicate the road toward consensus. In this environment, a unionized security force is starting to flex its newly found political muscles, which raises Ennahda’s fears of opportunists who may wish to capitalize on the failed political dialogue.

Ghannouchi’s rhetoric is not helpful either. Before writing for the Guardian a forward looking op-ed on the merits of the ballot over the bullet, Ghannouchi published one in Arabic a few days earlier for Al-Jazeera  [translation] on the merits of Political Islam. In it, he fiercely defended the nobleness of Islamists and how their movement is "the closet to the consciences of our nation." Ghannouchi decried the term "Political Islam," clarifying that "Islamic Movement" is the preferred term for it "refers to all the actions calling for Islam as God’s final word."

Talking broadly of the support of Arab secularists for the Egyptian coup that he described as their "collective suicide," he contrasted between them and "the honorable stand of the Islamic Movement in the face of tyranny." Ghannouchi ended the article by highlighting the core ideological difference that sets apart Ennahda from its secular opponents by stating that his vision of Islam embraces the achievements of modernity, like democracy, "after re-planting them in the field of Islam." The same was echoed in a speech he gave on November 2, elaborating on his belief that current ideological battles revolve around disagreements over how to modernize. In an understood reference to the Tunisian secular opposition, Ghannouchi blamed colonialism for introducing the idea that modernization can only come after the abandonment of Islam.

Perhaps the cause of these relapses into ideological polemics is the genuine uncertainty inside Ennahda over its future. The party seems to have not fully come to terms yet with why it finds itself in this undesirable situation of having to give up the government it rightfully won. Is it compromising because it has come to terms with the fact that the burdens of governing Tunisia at this stage are truly too great and that consensus not elections can save Tunisia? Or is it in this situation because of a conspiracy by whom Ghannouchi described as "eradicators [those wishing to eradicate Islamists], coup-aspirers, and terrorists," whose only objective is to overthrow the government? And thus facing the possibility of yet another unjustified coup the track of consensus building simply became a "strategic option" as he puts it?

Some of Ghannouchi’s comments may feed his critics into thinking that the latter case is the most accurate assessment. In an interview [translation] with the Tunisian al-Dhamir, Ghannouchi dismissed claims of disagreements inside Ennahda over the talks and added that they "will not allow the coup-aspirers to lead us into strife… and drag the country into a security, political, and chaotic vacuum justifying the abortion of the revolution and stopping the democratic transition." To Ghannouchi this is the sacrifice to pay for Tunisia to "remain the last lit candle of the Arab Spring" that is "a steadfast insurmountable fort against the counter-revolution and coup plots."

The political wranglings of the past few weeks, despite suggesting failure and loss of consensus in their headlines, tell a different story behind the scenes.

Unlike his Brothers in Cairo, Ghannouchi understands that he must engage his opposition and entertain its demands even if he has the legitimacy of the ballot box. Some may even trace the change of heart to a an hour long television appearance in late August on Nessma TV in which Ghannouchi described his biggest rival, Nidaa Tounes, as a "big party that can balance Tunisia politically." He also dismissed a question about the controversial "protecting the revolution" law that was designed to exclude Essebsi.

Ghannouchi said that the time was not appropriate for such laws and that the issue of transitional justice should be addressed after the elections. This, coupled with a private meeting in Paris earlier the same month, has fueled conspiracies by some in Tunisia that Ennahda and Nida Tounes may be working toward a deal to split power as the national dialogue nears complete failure — an allegation that may have induced laughter a few months ago but does not seem completely off the mark. Asked about such a deal in a recent interview, Essebsi simply said that it is "premature" to discuss this instead of an expected violent denial.

There remains a possibility for talks to resume and it will be up to Tunisia’s political elites to decide if they wish to bring stability to their country. The failures of the past week and petty differences over the selection of a new prime minister highlight that the debilitating curse of lack of political trust that has plagued Egypt threatens to find its way to Tunisia. Both the opposition and Ennahda must show great restraint to avoid letting their fight make its way to Tunisia’s streets, for this is an outcome in which all parties lose.

Mokhtar Awad is a research associate at the Center for American Progress.