I read on Al Jazeera English a good analysis about the current stand off in Tunisian politics between mainly Ennahda and the opposition about whether the current government should be replaced by an independent technocratic one or not. I will quote some parts of Yasmine Ryan’s article “Tunisia democracy faces crucial moment”, published 17 August on Al Jazeera’s English new website, and try to give a more in-depth insight into the current crisis that seems to become more dicisive in the success or failure of the Tunisian democratic transition period. Meaning, will Tunisia also follow Egypt’s path? Or will it be able to settle the crisis and continue – until now – to be an exception to Egypt and the other Arab countries that have known mere civil strife after their revolutions (such as Libya, Jemen and also the civil war in Syria).

In previous posts I have already written about what each political party proposes as a solution to the current crisismediation efforts of the powerful labour union (UGTT), and a comparison between Egypt and Tunisia and how the Egyptian conflict increases fears and distrust between different Tunisian political parties. On top of that the economy is quickly further deteriorating; Tunisia’s foreign and domestic long-term credit was downgraded on Friday due to increasing concerns about the political situation and security threats and “low confidence that the country will be able to respect its debt obligations”. The large Tunisian Industry, Trade and Handicrafts Union (known by its French acronym UTICA) and representatives of the private sector called for ending the political crisis as soon as possible, alarmed by the deteriorating state of the economy.

Some parts of the analysis on Al Jazeera about the current political crisis in Tunisia and Ennahda argument’s for not giving up their condition that their current Prime Minister should also head any future government:

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“Many members of the opposition are calling for Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh’s government to be dissolved and replaced by a “technocrat” government, arguing that this is necessary to see the country through its transition period….

Ennahdha, the governing party which shares ideological links with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, has so far rejected the idea of a technocratic government, which it sees as an attack on its political legitimacy. On Saturday morning, the Islamist party began a political congress in Tunis, the capital, which is likely to run until late on Sunday…

Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of Ennahdha, has condemned those calling for a dissolution of the government as “anarchists” and “Marxists”…

There is a fear within Ennahdha that should they lose political power, there could well be a return to the kind of political repression the party faced under the previous regime. 

“The Egyptian situation is helping us to understand better that what is happening in Egypt is not separate,” Osama Al Saghir, a member of the Ennahdha party and the Constituent Assembly, told Al Jazeera in an interview.

“There is clearly a kind of project to get back to the old regime. This is what happened in Egypt, and they are trying to do the same in Tunisia.”

It is notable, however, that whilst some of the members boycotting the constituent assembly have supported the Egyptian military’s massacre of the pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters, the majority of political parties have explicitly condemned them, including Al Massar, Nidaa Tounes and Al Watad.

Ennahdha believes that a technocrat government, far from being politically neutral, is a thinly-veiled attempt by loyalists of the old regime to put their people back in power.

“What do you think it means to have a technocrat government? Who are the technocrats in Tunisia? When we say technocrats, we mean people who worked all these years with Ben Ali,” Al Saghir said.

“I think a technocrat government would be really dangerous for the country.””

Just like in Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood, right from the moment Ennahda started governing (with CPR and Ettakatol) polarization increased by time between Ennahda and certain opposition parties (and figures), who were accussed by Nahda of being former regime sympathizers and/or remnants. The tension is also an ideological one; one between Islamists and secularists. Nevertheless it should be mentioned that Ennahda does govern with two secular parties and there also secularist parties and sympathizers that do no not believe in this traditional divide. After a second political assassination of a MP and opposition member turned the country into a political crisis recent events in Egypt have strengthened Ennahda in their fears in what they perceive to be “former regime remnants & anarchists” trying to stage a coup. This explains why Ennahda clings to what they perceive to be the legitimacy of the government, a government that was formed after constituent assembly elections. With “former regime remnants” among the opposition – thousands opposing the government have previously been demonstrating in Bardo square – Ennahda means Call of Tunisia (Nidaa Tounes). The party was founded after the previous elections and admits itself to have (some) members among its ranks that used to be in Ben Ali’s RCD party and/or served as a minister under his rule. The party is staunchly anti-Nahda, opposes strongly the ideology of the “Ikhwaan” (Muslim Brotherhood), is considered to be Bourguibist in its outlook and is led by Beji Caid Sebsi. A 86-year old veteran politician who was a key figure in the early years of the Ben Ali regime, but served most of his long political career – among them as Interior Minister and ambassador in Western countries – under Tunisia’s charismatic but authoritarian first president, Habib Bourguiba. The “anarchists” among the opposition, an accusation Ennahda president Ghannoushi coined again some days ago, are the socialists (previously known as The Communist Worker’s party and now united in the Popular Front), led by Hama al-Hammami. Known for his strong opposition to the government of former president Ben Ali, and was therefore frequently imprisoned and tortured the old regime. As I wrote in a previous post, the enmity between socialists/communists and Islamists is an old one in the entire Arab world. Although less apparent than it once was.

The argument that Ennahda fears that a technocratic government means automatically to be “a former regime government” is kinda new to me. Before their argument’s (previous days and weeks) focused on the legitimacy of the government. A technocratic government and who will take part in it can be open to discussion, in that case it seems a rather weak argument. Moreoever because also Ennahda has dealt and included in the current government some politicians that were known to have worked with Ben Ali’s regime. On the other hand is can be said – in general – that their are many former regime remnants among people who could be asked to join a future technocratic government. The Ben Ali regime has ruled Tunisia for more than 20 years so many in the the country’s elite with political experience might have been involved with the previous regime. Nevertheless, who will join a technocratic government is a second step that is open to negotiations. Another fact is that there other also among the opposition calling for the government to be replaced parties that are vehemently opposed to former regime remnants. One of those parties is the socialist Popular Front, old arch enemies of Islamists, but who have also been strongly persectured by Ben Ali’s regime.

Ennahda supporters

Having explained Ennahda’s (self-proclaimed) reasons for not giving in to the opposition demands, an independent technocratic government that should govern the country until next’s elections, it is also important to understand Nahda’s supporters. Is Ennahda able to give in into the opposition’s demands without the risk of disenfranchising their own supporters? No, they are not. Not after the language they used to describe (parts, if not all) of the opposition that demand the current government to be replaced. Not after the events in Egypt and the polarizing effect it has on Tunisian politics. From the beginning on Ennahda described any attempt to replace the current government (including the Prime Minister) as an attack on the government’s legitimacy and democracy itself. The events in Egypt strengthen Ennahda and its supporters in their fear that their political rivals are trying to get them down by using the current crisis to “stage a coup besides of the legitimacy the government has thanks to democratic elections”. When rumors appeared that the president of Ennahda met (in secret) with 86-year old president of Call of Tunisia (Nidaa Tounes) they were quick to clarify through a press release that it wasn’t true at all.

Some parts of the analysis on Al Jazeera about the current political crisis in Tunisia and the opposition’s arguments in demanding an independent technocratic government:

“Even for those Tunisians who have called on the armed forces to intervene in the same way that the Egyptian military stepped in to force President Mohammed Morsi out, Tunisia is a country where the military has traditionally abstained from political involvement, a role long held by the police instead.

Mongi Rahoui, head of the leftist Popular Front, the movement that both of the politicians assassinated this year belonged to, is amongst the members of the NCA boycotting the body and participating in a sit-in 

“We are not calling for anarchy, we are reacting to the fact that our party is in danger of terrorism and economic crisis,” he was quoted by the AFP news agency as saying on Friday, in response to Ghannouchi.

Tunisia’s powerful union, known as the UGTT by its French acronym, has played a crucial role in mediating the conflict, but is becoming increasingly frustrated with what it views as Ennahdha’s refusal to pay heed to widespread frustration over country’s economic and security situation…

On Friday, the union said it would no longer be playing the role of mediator as it is itself a political force with an agenda it wishes to push for. 

The UGTT’s Sami Tahria told the Tunisian national press agency on Friday that Ghannouchi was trying to win time.

The UGTT supports the calls for a non-political, technocrat government, but differs from the protesters at Bardo, the site of an ongoing sit-in, because it is not supporting an end to the efforts of the National Constituent Assembly to finalise the constitution and pave the way for elections by the end of the year.

..Yet many of those also calling for a non-political government, notably the UGTT, the Popular Front and several other political parties, do not want a return of the old regime any more than Ennahdha.

..It is notable, however, that whilst some of the members boycotting the constituent assembly have supported the Egyptian military’s massacre of the pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters, the majority of political parties have explicitly condemned them, including Al Massar, Nidaa Tounes and Al Watad.”

sebsi and ghannouchi

Although Egyptian events have a polarizing effect on Tunisian politics it is fortunate to see that many opposition parties condemned the crackdown of the Egyptian army on Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations. Despite of that fears have been increasing by events in Egypt, a look on facebook and pages affiliated to Ennahda or their activists say enough. Moreover, opposition activists (not politicians) do also seem to sympathize with the army in its crackdown on the demonstrations in Egypt. Video’s showing violence of “the Criminal Brotherhood” demonstrators are circulating widely and opposition’s facebook pages. It shows the deep divide that is present in Tunisia and could – if not solved – be a direct threat to the democratic transition if the crisis is not solved. Considering the problems with national security, fight against militants, poor state of the economy, polarizing effect of the events in Egypt and continuing political infighting, each day the crisis is not solved increases risking the democratic transition to fail.

The latest news last night was that Ennahda president Rashed al-Ghannoushi and Call of Tunisia president Beji Caid Sebsi had a meeting (see picture above; left Sebsi, right Ghannoushi). According to the news report they did not meet in Tunisia, but in Paris. Earlier this week Sebsi travelled indeed to France for several meetings, among them foreign officials.

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