The Middle East Channel

Après Ben Ali: déluge, democracy, or authoritarian relapse?

The post-Ben Ali era got off to a rocky start last week. Protesters who helped topple the old regime stayed in the streets and railed against the interim government’s inclusion of ministers from Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s government and its exclusion of Tunisia’s Islamist party, Hizb Ennahda. Prime Minster Mohamed Ghannouchi spent the week walking ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

The post-Ben Ali era got off to a rocky start last week. Protesters who helped topple the old regime stayed in the streets and railed against the interim government’s inclusion of ministers from Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s government and its exclusion of Tunisia’s Islamist party, Hizb Ennahda. Prime Minster Mohamed Ghannouchi spent the week walking a tightrope that grew thinner every day, making concessions to keep opposition ministers in the government without sacrificing technocrats from the old regime whose expertise the country needs. Five ministers defected despite those concessions. By week’s end, even the police — some of whom shot protesters last week — were marching in the streets demanding better working conditions.

This is a critical time for Tunisia’s potential transition to democracy, potential being the key word. Tunisia demonstrates the challenges that democracy faces when the transition begins by breaking a ruler, but not the authoritarian structures beneath him. If the interim government cannot survive and organize credible elections in roughly six months, none of the alternatives is attractive. Even if it does succeed in organizing credible elections, the possibility of authoritarian relapse remains real.

The immediate challenge concerns the status of the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD). It was Ben Ali’s ruling party, but it is also Tunisia’s ruling party. It is easy for people unfamiliar with Tunisia to underestimate the party’s reach. The RCD is the lineal descendant of one of the best-organized nationalist movements in the Middle East and Africa. Its complete unity with the organs of the state at the national, regional, and local levels — and its presence in every village and town — give it a rare degree of institutionalized power.

This history convinces many Tunisians that the party must be dissolved in order to make way for a true democratic transition, and the interim government spent the last week responding to these concerns. All ministers affiliated with the RCD resigned their party posts, and the RCD dissolved its political bureau. The government also promised future measures to separate state and the party institutions. Despite these overtures, protesters continue to demand the RCD’s dissolution.

These demands are unrealistic and potentially dangerous. Not everyone in the RCD is a corrupt thug, and the opposition parties are too small and too inexperienced to manage the challenges that face Tunisia — including the challenges involved in organizing credible elections. Moreover, dissolving the RCD will not necessarily make it go away. Its cadres could organize yet another incarnation of the party that has ruled the country since independence.

Instead, the opposition needs to concentrate on preventing an overhauled RCD from dominating the first elections so thoroughly that the party returns to unchecked power. Institutional reform prior to the elections can help. If the interim government can solidify its credibility, it can pursue constitutional changes that establish meaningful checks on executive power before anyone gets elected who might try to thwart them. The interim government can also reform electoral laws that limited the number of opposition seats and forced the parties to fight over them.       

But institutional reform alone will not protect Tunisia from an authoritarian relapse. Ultimately, the opposition must cultivate a political landscape that offers Tunisians a meaningful set of options. Creating those options does more than lay the foundations for meaningful choice over the long term. In the short-term, it also reduces the tensions that could result if Ennahda and the RCD, or its successor, stand as the only two meaningful options.   

As part of its effort to restore calm last week, the Council of Ministers proposed legislation granting an amnesty that would allow Islamist leaders to return to the country and run for office. That the government moved so quickly to develop this legislation is evidence of its keen desire to win Ennahda’s support. It also suggests that Ennahda likely will become a legal party in time for the first elections. That would be a healthy development. Ennahda has pledged to support the rules of democratic competition and protect Tunisia’s progressive Personal Status Code that gives women a broad range of legal rights. To exclude Ennahda would undermine the government’s credibility and invite continued unrest.

However, a bipolar standoff between Ennahda and the RCD would not be a healthy development. Uncertainty about the Islamists’ strength will make many Tunisians nervous in the run-up to the first vote. Ben Ali exploited fears of an Islamist victory to boost support for the RCD because voters had no credible non-Islamist alternative. Additionally, if RCD officials become fearful of an Islamist victory in a bipolar environment, they might revert to old tactics to block that outcome. Having a credible alternative, even a coalition that involves the Islamists, would reduce the tensions that an RCD-Ennahda showdown might generate. 

Tunisia must begin developing a more robust set of political parties. Decades of single-party rule and presidential domination produced a small handful of opposition parties with anemic organizational structures, meager finances, and underdeveloped platforms. They all needed the same basic liberties, so all their platforms demanded democracy and the rule of law. The parties never developed fuller programs that offered a substantive alternative to the ruling party or that allowed Tunisians to distinguish one party from another. Many of these parties also developed patently undemocratic internal politics. Intolerance of divergent views and inadequate rules for managing conflict turned these organizations into authoritarian copies of the ruling party they opposed. These cultures alienated public opinion and made the organizations brittle and susceptible to divide-and-conquer tactics. 

It is too much to expect these parties to become strong and independent, with national organizations and differentiated messages, in time for the first elections. Providing a counter to the RCD at this point probably means forming a coalition with shared lists and a formula for apportioning the seats across the parties. That, in turn, means that the parties need to concentrate on cooperating with one another rather than competing against one another. 

At the same time, however, Tunisia’s parties must begin to develop real structures and substantive messages. In the short term, this will help them mobilize voters on behalf of their coalition. Over the long term, this party-building work is vital to a consolidated democracy. Members, organizations, and messages create grassroots; grassroots create accountability. The ministers from the trade union who resigned last week did so because they came under pressure from their rank and file. Whether one approves of that decision or not, this dynamic is a healthy one. Leaders who are not beholden to any program or membership can be easily co-opted. More importantly, leaders who have no followers and no program have nothing to give to — or withhold from — the bargaining that is the lifeblood of democratic governance.

Christopher Alexander is Davidson College’s McGee director of the Dean Rusk International Studies Program, an associate professor of political science, and author of Tunisia: Stability and Reform in the Modern Maghreb.

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