Tunisia's Emerging Political Stalemate

6 MINS READFeb 21, 2013 | 11:31 GMT
Tunisian supporters of the ruling Ennahda party gather in Tunis on Feb. 16

The ruling Ennahda party may hold the most seats in the body convened to oversee the writing of a new Tunisian constitution, but the moderate Islamist group remains severely constrained and lacks the authority to govern meaningfully.

For nearly 60 years before the fall of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, Tunisia was ruled by a strong central government that placed a premium on loyalty to the state. While Tunisians largely still identify with the state, tribal divisions, socioeconomic gaps and ideological differences have become increasingly evident, preventing the central government from exerting its historical levels of control. The resignation of Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali on Feb. 19 is just the latest manifestation of the ongoing scramble for power among Tunisian political factions, which appear to have fought their way to a stalemate.

Jebali's resignation is the latest setback in Ennahda's attempt to capitalize on the electoral success that brought it to power in 2011. The moderate Islamist group was allowed to form a political party after the collapse of the Ben Ali regime, and it then secured 89 out of 217 seats in Tunisia's National Constituent Assembly — a plurality — when the body convened in October 2011. But Ennahda did not win a majority and was thus forced to form a coalition with partners ideologically opposed to it: the secular Congress for the Republic and Ettakatol parties. Though Ennahda has insisted that it is not interested in a theocratic state and wants to govern within a democratic framework, the party's moderate Islamist ideology has kept the coalition contentious.

These tensions boiled over after the Feb. 6 assassination of Chokri Belaid, a prominent secular opposition leader, which triggered mass protests and riots across Tunisia. Jebali, under pressure from the unrest, and perhaps from the prolonged political quagmire, proposed a plan that previously had support from the opposition: the appointment of a technocratic Cabinet to guide the Tunisian government forward until the constitution could be written and elections held. Jebali's own party and the opposition both rejected the proposal.

Thus, Tunisia's competing groups appear to have reached an impasse in their pursuit of influence and power in the vacuum created by Ben Ali's fall. Many of Tunisia's historical institutions that the former regime used to maintain political control still exist — most notably the labor unions, the military and the Interior Ministry — however, the collapse of the single-party system has created openings in Tunisia that a wide array of groups are attempting to fill.

Myriad Divisions

Jebali's failure in negotiations and his subsequent resignation highlight several dynamics at play in Tunisia. First, Ennahda is divided about how best to govern the country. Indeed, 56 of the 89 members of the party in the Constituent Assembly voted against Jebali's proposal for a technocratic government. Disagreements over political strategies will not fracture Ennahda in the short term, but the party's internal discord is a primary contributor to the larger political deadlock.

Tunisia's Geography

Tunisia's Geography

The rejection of Jebali's plan also demonstrates that opposition parties, even those within the ruling coalition, have an interest in destabilizing the government. Secular opposition parties have been focused on what they believe to be a looming threat of Salafist activity in Tunisia. Indeed, the country's Salafists have become more active since political controls were relaxed after the revolution, and militants have been crossing Tunisia's porous borders with Algeria and Libya. But the opposition appears to be amplifying the threat to isolate and delegitimize Ennahda. This strategy has already produced results for the opposition — many in Tunisia blamed Ennahda for the assassination of Belaid, despite a dearth of evidence implicating the party.

Beyond security concerns, Tunisia is also under economic pressure. Financial stresses arguably sparked the Arab Spring, and the Tunisian economy has continued to suffer since the fall of Ben Ali. The government is currently in late-stage negotiations with the International Monetary Fund over a $1.78 billion loan, which the agency said could be jeopardized by the country's political drama. Moreover, Tunisia's influential labor unions have increased their protest activities, and tribal unrest has persisted in southern Tunisia. The more unpredictable Tunisia's domestic political situation becomes, the more salient these problems will appear — and Ennahda will bear the brunt of popular dissatisfaction if it cannot take steps to solve them.

Until a clear vision of governance emerges in Tunisia, increased unrest, economic uncertainty and the possibility of violence will remain the country's status quo. A degraded security environment in Tunisia would be unwelcome news for neighboring Libya and Algeria, both of which are dealing with their own security challenges. Indeed, Tunisia's security concerns are compounded by the country's position between restive portions of its two neighbors. For example, Algeria's Trans-Mediterranean Pipeline, which transports natural gas to Italy and is a possible target for militants, runs through Tunisian territory.

The Collapse of Centralized Control

When thinking about the challenges facing Ennahda and Tunisia's other political parties, it is useful to understand how Ben Ali and Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia's founding president, exerted control over the country. Both leaders depended on their party — Neo Destour, which Ben Ali renamed the Constitutional Democratic Rally — as their primary source of political power. Neo Destour was formed in 1934 as a reaction to French colonialism in Tunisia and evolved into a mass national party, through which Bourguiba and Ben Ali managed the various pillars of Tunisian society, including the country's labor unions and military.

If Neo Destour was the organizing force behind Tunisia's centralized government, the country's Internal Security Forces, under the jurisdiction of the Interior Ministry, was the government's muscle. The size of the security apparatus at its peak was unclear, though estimates in 2011 ranged from 40,000 to 200,000 employees. Beyond typical policing duties, the Interior Ministry used the force in several ways to preserve central government control, including jailing and torturing Tunisians deemed threats to the regime and violently cracking down on protests.

Population Density in Tunisia

Population Density in Tunisia

Lacking the connections and authority of the old single-party regime, Ennahda will need to strengthen its relationships with the Interior Ministry, the military and the labor unions for its electoral success to translate into political authority. This is why Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem, an Ennahda member who the coalition partners wanted removed, insisted that control of the Interior Ministry would remain with Ennahda after Jebali stepped down. However, the opposition is vying for these relationships as well, and Tunisia's new political system affords the country's institutions unprecedented freedom of operation. Because of this, governance in Tunisia has become much less centralized.

While Tunisia has a compact geography and a generally homogenous society (98 percent of Tunisians are ethnically Arab-Berber and Sunni Muslim), its populace has many divisions — secular and Islamist, rural and urban, wealthy and poor. Tunisia's revolution began in the town of Sidi Bouzid at least in part due to the lack of economic development undertaken by the central government in Tunisia's interior and southern governorates. Democracy has given these groups new political voices, and the collapse of the erstwhile single-party system has fostered fierce competition for authority and power among Tunisian political parties. Jebali's resignation must be understood in that context. And Tunisia's political, economic and security environments will remain volatile for as long as that competition is about who will rule, as opposed to how.

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