The Middle East Channel

Tunisia in turmoil

It was a terrible day for Tunisia. Yesterday morning, Mohamed Brahmi — a leftist politician and Constituent Assembly member — was shot dead outside his home in the al-Ghazala neighborhood of Tunis. His wife and daughter witnessed the gruesome scene. News of the murder, Tunisia’s second political assassination in less than six months, spread quickly, ...


It was a terrible day for Tunisia. Yesterday morning, Mohamed Brahmi — a leftist politician and Constituent Assembly member — was shot dead outside his home in the al-Ghazala neighborhood of Tunis. His wife and daughter witnessed the gruesome scene. News of the murder, Tunisia’s second political assassination in less than six months, spread quickly, triggering a chain of increasingly disruptive events throughout the country — events likely to have a much more destabilizing effect than the assassination itself. 

Brahmi’s assassination was an act of terrorism timed for maximum chaotic impact. It came on Republic Day, a feel-good annual celebration marking Tunisia’s foundation as an independent republic. It came as Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly, which has spent the past year and a half drafting a new, post-revolutionary constitution for Tunisia, was on the cusp of finishing its work. It came just one day before Tunisia’s Interior Ministry was set to release information pinpointing the identity of those chiefly responsible for assassinating Chokri Belaid, the prominent leftist leader similarly gunned down outside his home on February 6. And it came the same week that the Constituent Assembly had all but finalized the selection of nine experts who would constitute the Independent Board for Elections, an oversight body responsible for planning and setting the date for the next elections.

Despite Tunisia’s manifold challenges — a flagging economy, barely reformed judicial and security sectors, stalled transitional justice process, and ongoing secularist vs. Islamist and old regime vs. new regime polarization — there was cause to celebrate. Tunisia’s transition, symbolized most powerfully by its constitutional drafting process, has moved forward in fits and starts, but it has moved forward — setting Tunisia apart from stalled or reversed transitions in neighboring countries.

Tunisia has made incremental reforms in the media, justice, and security sectors. Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly has drafted a solid transitional justice law that awaits passage. The assembly has honed and refined four successive constitutional drafts and while serious problems (such as the place of international law) still exist, nearly all observers, both local civil society and international human rights and constitutions experts alike, agree that the current draft represents major improvement from the first, and that the work of constitution-drafting is nearly complete.

The ruling "troika" coalition of Ennahda, an Islamist party, and two center left parties, Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettakatol, has grown more adept at communicating its objectives with the people, and has demonstrated an ability to learn from mistakes. Far from stubbornly stonewalling constitutional consensus like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Ennahda has recanted some of its more problematic positions, including an attempt to criminalize blasphemy and define men and women in complementary terms. Regarding the nature of Tunisia’s new political system (presidential or parliamentary), which has represented the toughest sticking point in the constitutional debates, Ennahda again took a more negotiated road, abandoning its first position — parliamentary all the way — in favor of a weak presidential model in the style of Portugal.

This is not to claim Ennahda has been a cuddly, compromising party throughout the drafting process. Rather, Ennahda has made a number of mistakes and has, like other political actors, demonstrated its fair share of hard-nosed self-interest. Attempts by Ennahda representative and General Rapporteur Habib Khidr to editorialize his own views into the draft’s third version were seen as particularly offensive by party opponents. However, the accusation that Ennahda singlehandedly delegitimized the assembly’s work by bullishly refusing consensus is overblown. 

Despite the pettiness and disorganization that have often characterized its work, assembly members have frequently sought to build consensus, reach out to local and international experts, and increase citizen stakeholdership in the drafting process. This has manifested itself through extensive meetings with local and international experts, nationwide efforts to solicit citizen feedback on the drafts, and, more recently, through "national dialogue" meetings aimed at building consensus amongst key political stakeholders, including Nidaa Tounes (the country’s major opposition party; not represented in the Constituent Assembly) and the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), the country’s major trade union.

Despite these attempts at outreach, Tunisia’s Constituent Assembly has grown increasingly unpopular amongst average citizens, though for reasons that have little or nothing to do with Brahmi’s assassination.

First, the Constituent Assembly failed to manage public expectations. Soon after being elected in October 2011, the assembly promised to finalize a new constitution and announce fresh elections — all within one year. Constitutions experts have described this as an unrealistically short time frame. The assembly’s failure to effectively communicate what was possible in a transitional and democratic context elevated people’s already high expectations in the heady post-revolutionary period.

Furthermore the drafting process has been hampered with repeated delays. As deadline after deadline for finishing the constitution and announcing new elections passed, people grew upset. Many Tunisians now perceive the next elections as an ever-receding horizon line, and view assembly members (particularly those in the ruling Ennahda party) as power-hungry, purposely ineffectual politicians chiefly concerned with holding onto their seats.

Third, blundering and petty misconduct of assembly members has chipped away at the institution’s credibility. Tunisians grew accustomed to viral images of bickering assembly members fighting over pieces of paper and otherwise denigrating the seriousness of the institution. Many assembly members, particularly those from secular and leftist opposition parties, consistently failed to show up for work, even on key voting days. Compounding public frustration over these events were rumors that assembly members voted to increase their salaries, making average Tunisians see their representatives as greedy and unfit to rule. For many Tunisians, used to near-complete absence of debate under the regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, seeing assembly members bicker and fight unproductively also seemed shocking. Was this democracy?

Lastly, there is a widespread perception that the assembly focused on issues of high principle and ideology, neglecting the concrete, material issues that concern most Tunisians. Economically speaking, people’s situations have generally declined or stagnated since the revolution. In terms of security, Tunisians have experienced deep turmoil since the revolution, swapping the eerie stability of a police state for the uncertainty of a transitional context in which state authority is fragmented, contested, and decentralized. For Tunisians concerned with transitional justice, change has been similarly hard to see: basic institutions of day-to-day life, such as courts, police offices, and other public establishments continue to function under similar codes of bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption, often under the same administrators who headed those places during the Ben Ali years.

Related to these four general grievances against the assembly are more specific criticisms of Ennahda. Many Tunisians, the most vocal of whom have been leftists, secularists, and other long-time critics, have accused the party of delegitimizing itself and the government as a whole by failing to crack down on violent Islamic extremism (generally identified in Tunisia with Salafi jihadism).

As a number of researchers, myself included, have pointed out, young Salafi jihadis have represented a difficult conundrum for Ennahda, particularly in the context of a weak or contested security apparatus and hobbled judicial system. Though Ennahda initially pursued a soft hand, or accommodationist strategy, with Salafi jihadis, it hardened its approach in the wake of the September 2012 U.S. Embassy attack. By spring, Ennahda had significantly toughened its approach to Salafi jihadism, particularly to Ansar al-Sharia — Tunisia’s most prominent Salafi jihadi movement. In April and May, Ennahda attempted to subject Ansar al-Sharia to bureaucratic controls, forcing it to apply for an official "tarkhees" (license) before setting up its daawa (evangelizing) tents in town squares or holding gatherings. In what one journalist aptly termed a "public game of chicken" in May, Ennahda wrestled quite publically with Ansar al-Sharia in an effort to shut down its annual party conference in Kariouan — an effort in which the Ennahda-led government ultimately succeeded.

Despite Ennahda’s change of tack, many Tunisians continue to see the government as ineffectual or unwilling to enforce rule of law. The lengthy investigation into Chokri Belaid’s murder, combined with surprisingly weak sentences for Salafis involved in the U.S. Embassy attack, and topped off with yesterday’s assassination, have fueled perceptions that Ennahda has neglected or endorsed a culture of impunity in Tunisia.

Though likely perpetrated by extremists with no clear ties to the assembly or major political parties, Brahmi’s assassination tapped into this pre-existing wellspring of popular discontent. In the last 24 hours, we’ve seen an outpouring of anger at the assembly, stoked by outspoken opposition leaders eager to paint themselves as confident "rijaal dawla" (statesmen) capable of stepping triumphantly into the chaotic void and restoring stability and calm to an increasingly uncertain situation.

To understand the heated dynamics in Tunisia today, we must first consider the knock-on effects of the coup which recently toppled Muslim Brotherhood member and former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Ennahda’s opponents in Tunisia had long sought to portray the party as a simple iteration of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood — part of a global cabal of conspirational Islamists intent on establishing a trans-national caliphate. The massive uprisings in Egypt, and success of Egypt’s Tamarod movement, emboldened Ennahda’s opponents in Tunisia. Leaders in Nidaa Tounes, the key opposition party, stepped up attempts to label Ennahda as a purely "Ikhwanji" (Muslim Brotherhood) movement, and to paint Ennahda with the brush of Brotherhood failure. A Tunisian version of the Tamarod movement formed and collected thousands of signatures supporting dissolution of the Constituent Assembly. Beji Caid Essebsi, the savvy 86-year-old leader of Nidaa Tounes, followed similar suit and also began issuing calls to dissolve the assembly.

Such calls were surprising and disturbing. Given the fact that the Constituent Assembly represents Tunisia’s core transitional body, given the effort it has invested in drafting a new constitution, and given the proximity of finalizing that constitution and holding fresh elections in the coming months, these calls seemed both unnecessary and highly opportunistic. The assembly’s progress (final, article-by-article votes were scheduled to begin this month) and clear steps, such as the formation of the International Board for Elections, indicated that the final stages of constitution drafting and much-anticipated election organizing were imminent. Still, prior to the assassination of Mohamed Brahmi, it seemed Essebsi and Tamarod’s calls for dissolution would remain more pestering than threatening.

Yesterday’s assassination changed all that. At least three Constituent Assembly members have resigned in the past 24 hours. Calls to dissolve the entire assembly itself, create a "National Salvation Government," and hold fresh elections have abounded — though no one has provided details about how these steps would be organized. Figures calling for dissolution also have yet to explain exactly how the assembly’s failures — mainly tied to poor expectation management — precipitated Brahmi’s murder. How will dissolving the country’s core transitional body at this juncture hasten the formation of a sound constitution? Why not wait and resolve grievances at the ballot box in a few months’ time? If the constitution has been written in a dangerously non-consensual environment, as the pro-dissolution camp claims, then what will become of this fourth and final draft — the product of three previous drafts, countless hours spent pouring over other countries’ constitutions, and hours spent listening to outside expertise and debating detailed provisions inside the assembly’s six constitutional sub-committees? Will the product of so much sweat and toil simply be scrapped? Who will choose this "National Salvation Government," and how will it — an unelected body — provide more democratic governance than the Constituent Assembly?

These questions remain unanswered and — to a disturbing degree — almost wholly unconsidered. Yesterday, in a worrisome turn, Ahmed Nejjib Chebbi, the leader of Hizb al-Joumhouri, a key opposition party, reversed course and joined the clamor for dissolution. Chebbi, whose Joumhouri party reluctantly formed a coalition with Nidaa Tounes earlier this year, had been a voice of comparative pragmatism in the opposition, refusing Essebsi’s calls to dissolve the assembly. Sadly, highly influential figures like Chebbi and, especially, Essebsi, are seizing opportunities for short-term political gain. These are the figures who can speak sense in a chaotic, terrorism-addled environment.

Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki has been sounding some right notes: we will investigate this, Brahmi’s assassination was clearly calculated to disrupt Tunisia’s transition in the final hour, do not take the terrorists’ bait by caving into fear and allowing this transition to collapse. However, Marzouki represents little more than a strangely spectacled laughing stock to many Tunisians today. He is not the leader capable of calming this storm, the voice of reason that can lift Tunisians above their fears in this tragic and disruptive moment. The people who can do that are opposition figures: Radhia Nasraoui and her husband Hama Hammami in Jibha Chaabia, the leftist movement of which Brahmi was part, Ahmed Nejjib Chebbi and Maya Jribi in Hizb al-Joumhouri, and — most importantly — Beji Caid Essebsi, the self-defined "statesman" who inspires the anti-Ennahda opposition more than any other single figure.

Essebsi was rightly hailed for his efforts to successfully shepherd Tunisia through the first phase of its transition in 2011. Today, however, it appears he may be capitulating to short-term opportunism. Like Chebbi, Essebsi has clearly stated his intention to run for the presidency in Tunisia’s next elections. His Nidaa Tounes party is heavily associated with old regime elements, including in its key financiers and local committees well-known individuals who worked with Ben Ali’s Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party. In short, both Essebsi and Nidaa Tounes stand much to gain from the assembly’s collapse — at least in the short-term. Secular and leftist opposition parties in Tunisia have been riven with personal tensions, more adept at creating single "big personality" leaders than forging broad coalitions. In a transitional political culture often dominated more by immediacy and egoism than long-term concern for the public good, it should perhaps not be surprising that Tunisia’s opposition leaders are fueling public fear in this manner.

Ultimately, Mohamed Brahmi’s assassination may prove far more threatening for Tunisia’s transition than Chokri Belaid’s. Both were marginal leftist politicians, better known for vocally criticizing Ennahda than presenting any true threat to its power. It remains unclear why Ennahda would have felt threatened by either man, or how it could have stood to gain anything from purposefully fomenting chaos under its watch — particularly after the party has invested so much time in the constitutional drafting process, administering the government on both national and local levels, and meticulously rebuilding its burned headquarters around the country in the wake of Belaid’s assassination.

The media is responding in a much more inflammatory manner in the wake of Brahmi’s death, spending almost no time mourning the man or discussing his achievements, as it did after Belaid was killed. Instead, major radio and television channels are bypassing basic discussions of culpability, motives, and impunity — not to mention more complex, but no less fundamental issues, such as security reform and judicial reform — in favor of highly charged, emotional debates about dissolving the Constituent Assembly. The climate today is one of passionate anger, fear, impatience, and opportunism — in a word, chaos. This is precisely the sort of climate Belaid and Brahmi’s murderers sought to create.

Unless key oppositional leaders speak calmly, refusing to prioritize short-term personal gain over long-term stability for the country, it is likely that Tunisia will spiral into more unrest. It remains unclear how UGTT’s general strike today, not to mention Jibha Chaabia’s widespread calls for civil disobedience, will do anything to solve the problems that led to Brahmi’s murder. As was the case in the wake of Belaid’s murder, the priority now is a fair, thorough, and efficient investigation of Brahmi’s assassins, combined with ongoing steps toward reforming Tunisia’s judicial and security sectors — little discussed, but highly crucial issues intimately tied to instances of unrest and impunity in Tunisia today.

Stalling or reversing the gains Tunisia has made thus far is not the answer. These next two weeks may make or break the Tunisian transition. I, for one, hope that Tunisians do not fall prey to the fear and self-destructive unrest that Brahmi’s assassins so clearly sought.

Monica Marks is a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate in Middle Eastern Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford. She is based in Tunisia.

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