Tunisia's Secularists Challenge Ennahda in Elections

10 MINS READOct 25, 2014 | 13:01 GMT
Tunisia's Secularists Challenge Ennahda in Elections
Former Tunisian Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi delivers a speech in Tunis in June 2012.

Tunisia's Oct. 26 general elections — the first since the country adopted a new constitution in January — feature an unusually high number of political parties. Voters will choose from more than 1,300 competing lists and 10 times as many candidates for a total of 217 seats within the Assembly of People's Representatives. The elections highlight the familiar rivalry between the country's secular and Islamist communities.  In previous elections, Tunisia's secularists lacked unity and organization. However, they have regained support among the general population and stand to pose a serious challenge to the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, which dominated Tunisia's political landscape from late 2011 until the end of 2013.

Despite the deeply engrained political competition between the two camps, both are concerned with persistent economic malaise, the rising threat of domestic and regional jihadism and the risk of violence spilling over from Libya. These common interests could lead Tunisia's secular and Islamist political forces into reluctant cooperation. Neither side is expected to get a majority of the votes in the election, and each fears the potential consequences of sidelining the other. With assistance from non-political actors, such as Tunisia's powerful unions, a coalition government could potentially form during intense behind-the-scenes negotiations, though any coalition would prove weak and fractious. An agreement between the secularists and Ennahda might ameliorate — but will not eliminate — Tunisia's current economic and security challenges.

After President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in the onset of the Arab Spring, the Ennahda Movement — led by Islamist political exile Rashid Ghannouchi — emerged as the most organized political force in Tunisia. Capitalizing on the regional rise of Islamist movements and a political ban on officials from Ben Ali's Rally for Constitutional Democracy party, Ennahda secured 89 out of 217 seats and 37 percent of the popular vote in elections for the National Constituent Assembly in October 2011. In order to form a majority within the transitional government, Ennahda joined forces with the secular Ettakatol and Congress for the Republic parties. With control of the prime minister's post and other key positions, Ennahda was poised to play a leading role in the formation of Tunisia's new constitution, a task for the transitional government.

But Tunisian citizens soon grew frustrated with perceived delays in the formation of the new constitution, alongside economic struggles that had persisted since Ben Ali's presidency and the rise of Salafists throughout the country. The assassinations of left-wing opposition political leaders Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi led to mass protests by Tunisians who blamed Ennahda for the growing extremism and associated violence in the country. Ongoing demonstrations and public criticism by the secular opposition and its own coalition partners forced Ennahda to step down in October 2013 and allow a technocratic government to draft the new constitution. By January 2014, the new government had created and passed the long-awaited constitution.

Enduring Problems

Despite these political achievements, popular frustration remains widespread. Unemployment is high (approximately 15 percent), foreign investment remains limited, and economic growth has been slower than expected. To a degree, these economic problems are tied to Europe's financial crisis: Europe is a major trade partner for Tunisia. Libya's continuing instability also disrupts economic ties, and consistent security threats hamper investment and tourism. Moreover, domestic and regional militants continue launching occasional deadly operations from the southwestern Jabal Chaambi region, despite increased security cooperation with Algerian security forces. Meanwhile, ongoing fighting between militias in western Libya threatens to spill across the porous Tunisian border.

Widespread discontent encourages Tunisians to reflect back on the stability of the Ben Ali era with a sense of longing. In a poll of Tunisian citizens by the International Republican Institute in June, 67 percent of respondents believed that Tunisia is heading in the wrong direction, and 50 percent would prefer stable authoritarianism to an unstable democracy. Under these circumstances, members of Ben Ali's Rally for Constitutional Democracy party — who are eligible to run in upcoming elections — are making a political comeback in Tunisia's secular community.

The Secular Challenge

Ennahda has managed to retain a good deal of support in both the Islamist and non-Islamist-but-practicing Muslim communities and even remains popular among certain centrist and secular circles. Ennahda's support is primarily situated in the country's southern regions, as well as urban centers such as Tunis and Sfax. The party leadership has campaigned hard to highlight the organization's liberal Islamist ideology, distancing the party from other regional Islamist groups whose stances are considered more radical. Notably, Ennahda supported the call to allow the political return of former regime officials, not wishing to further swing public opinion away from their cause. Opinion polls expect the party to emerge with some 25 percent of the vote, while Stratfor's own sources put that number closer to 30 percent to 35 percent.

In the 2011 general elections, secular parties generally suffered from a lack of organization and unity. However, in this upcoming election, Nidaa Tounis — Call for Tunisia, an umbrella party from the moderate left — will give Ennahda serious competition. Nidaa Tounis has been attracting supporters rapidly since its formation in 2012. The party is led by Beji Caid Essebsi, an 87-year-old former interim prime minister who portrays his organization as an alternative to Islamism. Nidaa Tounis sees itself as the champion of policies set forth by Habib Bourguiba, the first president of Tunisia, whose three decades of rule prioritized secularism, economic reform and internal stability.

Nidaa Tounis is focused on reforming the economy, and frequently calls for more business-friendly policies and increased state intervention in economic affairs. The party reportedly has close ties with Tunisia's private sector and labor unions; the former secretary-general of the powerful Tunisian General Labor Union is one of its strong supporters. Essebsi, who held senior leadership positions within the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes, also attracted a large number of former Rally for Constitutional Democracy officials to his party's cause, including the outlawed party's former secretary-general. Although the presence of these relics of the Ben Ali era has alienated some liberal democrats, it also has allowed Nidaa Tounis to capitalize on the former government's still-expansive patronage networks in the business community and the military. Opinion polls indicate that Essebsi's party will poll ahead of Ennahda by a slim margin, while Stratfor's sources expect a neck-and-neck race.

Although Essebsi has positioned his party as the most serious political challenger, its rapid ascent has highlighted rifts among the secularists, with elements of Nidaa Tounis that are oriented more toward business and the Rally for Constitutional Democracy on one side and a number of smaller, more liberal parties on the other. Among these smaller parties is the Popular Front, a conglomeration of far-left entities led by Hamma Hammami that leans toward communist ideology and has long been a vocal critic of Ennahda. Another more liberal entity is Ettakatol — one of the parties Ennahda joined with in the National Constituent Assembly. The socialist-learning party, led by former transitional President Mustapha Ben Jaafar, has declined in popularity lately. The Congress for the Republic — Ennahda's other transitional government partner — has seen its support dwindle as well. Two other relatively new political parties, al Joumhouri and Current of Love, also fall within this camp. None of the aforementioned parties is expected to win more than 5 percent to 10 percent of the vote, but any of them could be an important coalition partner in a future government.

The Elections' Expected Outcome

Ennahda and Nidaa Tounis have established themselves as the dominant political players in Tunisia. Years of competition have shaped the Islamist and secularist psyches, solidifying a rivalry that has not abated ahead of the elections. Nevertheless, recent statements and actions by both sides have indicated that neither side is keen on alienating the other from the future government, though cooperation would happen reluctantly.

For Ennahda, forming a coalition without Essebsi's faction would mean the Islamist party would continue hemorrhaging support — not only within the assembly, but also in the streets if Nidaa Tounis chooses to use its patronage network to restart demonstrations. It would also deny Ghannouchi access to the secularists' valuable business ties, risking further economic stagnation.

Ennahda's decision not to oppose the return of former regime figures is telling of its strategy of reconciliation, as are its recent appeals for a national unity government. In fact, in a recent interview with Reuters, Ghannouchi said his party is fully prepared to enter a coalition with secular rivals and former regime officials. During a recent visit to the United States, Ghannouchi said that Tunisia will have a national consensus government after the Oct. 26 elections, adding that "a 51 percent majority cannot govern a country whose democratic institutions are recent and fragile." Perhaps more notable is Ennahda's decision to forego nominating a presidential candidate — a key demand of Nidaa Tounis' leadership. Ennahda has likely learned its lesson from the past few tumultuous years as the face of the Tunisian government and is opting to use its seats in the assembly — and powerful ministerial positions — to play an important role behind the scenes.

Meanwhile, if Nidaa Tounis moves to oust Ennahda, and Tunisia's broader Islamist community, it risks further radicalizing Tunisia's Salafists, thus potentially fueling an already brewing local jihadist insurgency. Ennahda also gives the secularists a way to reach and control Tunisia's Islamist population. Essebsi and other Nidaa Tounis leaders have been less vocal than Ghannouchi regarding their willingness to forge a coalition government and at times have spoken against such an arrangement. Nevertheless, during an interview with Reuters in March, Essebsi acknowledged that his party is ready to collaborate with Ennahda if the upcoming elections do not produce a clear majority.

Limited Options

With neither side expected to emerge from the election with a clear mandate, the secularists and Islamists are increasingly viewing a fragile power-sharing agreement as the only option if Tunisia's economic and security challenges are to be met effectively. A final agreement, however, will involve intense negotiations, with both sides demanding their share of key ministerial portfolios. Tunisia's powerful quartet of non-political actors — the Tunisia General Labor Union, the employers' union, the Bar Association and the Human Rights League — understand the consequences of a continued political standoff and will work to bring the two sides to the negotiating table. In the meantime, a number of the smaller liberal democratic parties are likely to be courted in order to round out the consensus government.

Neighboring Algeria will also play a key role in facilitating a final compromise. The most economically and politically stable state in the region, Algeria has been expanding influence over its eastern neighbor steadily, fostering working relationships within Tunisia's secular and Islamist communities. This relationship gives Algiers access to both economic incentives and, more important, security cooperation to prevent jihadists from threatening its vulnerable eastern territories. Political instability in Tunisia opens up opportunities for regional jihadists, which is not in Algeria's interests. At the same time, Algeria has a stake in maintaining Tunisia's dependence on Algiers as the country's primary security, economic and political guarantor. By facilitating the formation of a weak secular-Islamist government in Tunis, Algiers can ensure its continued position as Tunisia's chief patron and mediator, thus retaining its influence in the country. This would also work to limit political blowback caused by Algeria's expanding security and intelligence presence in the jihadist haven of southwestern Tunisia.

A broad ruling coalition could form after weeks, if not months, of heated political jockeying and intense mediation efforts. The presidential election on Nov. 23 will also factor into this power-sharing negotiation, and both sides will struggle to agree upon a compromise candidate. Nevertheless, a consensus government likely will work to ease the concerns of some foreign investors and could produce new hopes of an economic recovery. Islamist-secular cooperation — albeit limited and temporary — could also result in more effective coordination against jihadist activity.

A coalition is not likely to end the Islamist-secular rivalry, however, and debates within the new government will probably gridlock policymaking and legislation. Moreover, Ansar al-Sharia and associated jihadist entities in the south could attempt to ramp up violence in response to the perceived co-opting of much of the country's Islamist community. Tunisia's chronic challenges are far from over, but the election season is showing the potential for improvements.

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