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Tunisia's Slow but Persistent Path to Reform

11 MINS READJun 23, 2017 | 16:02 GMT
Protesters turned out May 22 in Tunis to show their support for Tunisians who held a three-month sit-in in Tataouine province demanding jobs and a share of oil and natural gas revenues for their impoverished region.
Protesters turned out May 22 in Tunis to show their support for Tunisians who held a three-month sit-in in Tataouine province demanding jobs and a share of oil and natural gas revenues for their impoverished region.
(FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Tunisia's political reforms since the Arab Spring, though incomplete, have created consensus among the governing elite that trying to reform the current system is a better approach than trying to challenge it.
  • As Tunisia's government has moved on to implementing policy changes, internal divisions in the Nidaa Tounes party and its ruling coalition, which includes the Islamist party Ennahda, have paralyzed the process.
  • Nevertheless, the country will keep pushing to decentralize the political system, reform the economy and fight corruption.

The Arab Spring shook North Africa to its core. In Egypt, the military tore down the Muslim Brotherhood nearly as quickly as the Islamist group rose to power, and six years on, the government looks much like it did before the wave of revolutions swept the region. The ouster of Moammar Gadhafi in neighboring Libya splintered the country into tribal militias, and today three rival governments are fighting for control there. Only Tunisia managed the transition from a dictatorship to a functioning representative democracy.

But piecing a political system back together in the wake of a revolution can be a lengthy process. In the years since the Jasmine Revolution brought more than five decades of authoritarian rule in Tunisia to an end in 2011, the country has struggled to keep up the pace of reform. Disputes among the ruling coalition, between Islamist and secularist groups, and between the elite and marginalized segments of society have consistently bogged down the process of introducing change. Even so, a pragmatic approach to governing has prevailed in Tunisia since the Arab Spring, keeping the country on a slow but steady path toward reform.  

An Incomplete Transition

Tunisia's political transformation has not been easy, nor is it complete. Tunisia is one of the Arab world's more secular societies, but Islam's role in the country's political future proved a contentious issue when its leaders set about drafting the 2014 constitution. Ennahda, the Tunisian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, flourished after longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali resigned in 2011. The party, banned under Ben Ali's reign, drew support among the marginalized segments of Tunisian society, particularly in the country's impoverished and often more conservative interior regions, and quickly became Tunisia's largest political group. Meanwhile, the secular parties remained at odds over issues such as whether to allow politicians from Ben Ali's era to hold office. They banded together, however, in the face of Ennahda and its brand of political Islam — a more moderate variant compared with that of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, from which the group formally separated last year. The secularists, along with former members of Ben Ali's government, formed a new party, Nidaa Tounes, or "Call of Tunisia," around former Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi ahead of national elections in late 2014.

The vote, together with the new constitution, was supposed to jumpstart the next phase of Tunisia's reform process. Instead, the country's progress stalled. Tunisia had managed to establish a functional, if chaotic, democracy. But its economy was in shambles. Many of the promises enshrined in the 2014 constitution, moreover — including the devolution of political power to local governments — required secondary legislation to take effect. And given the rampant discord among the country's parties, those measures have not come to pass. 

Notable Political Events in Tunisia

When Nidaa Tounes won a plurality in parliament in 2014, it was opposition to Ennahda — and not a common political ideology — that united most of its members. Internal differences have hamstrung the group in the three years since it took over the government; last year, 21 lawmakers, including a founding member of the party, Mohsen Marzouk, left Nidaa Tounes. The resignations forced the party to cozy up to Ennahda, which now held a slim plurality in parliament, to maintain control of the government and legislature. In July 2016, Nidaa Tounes and several other parties agreed to form a new government focused on three issues: putting the economy back on track, implementing reforms, including the decentralized authority promised in the constitution, and curtailing corruption. The deal, known as the Carthage Agreement, gave rise to a government led by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed. It did not, however, end the country's political struggles. Still, Chahed and Caid Essebsi, who was elected president in December 2014, have kept trying to advance the Carthage Agreement's reform agenda.

Wide-Ranging Economic Challenges

Under Chahed's guidance, for instance, the government in Tunis has been working to ease Tunisia's fiscal burden. The country's economy has been sluggish since 2014. Its annual real gross domestic product grew by an average of only about 1 percent in 2015 and 2016. And much of this growth has been concentrated in the wealthy coastal areas, while the interior regions lag behind. (The unemployment rate among Tunisia's inland population is estimated to be at least twice the national average of 15 percent.) In May 2016, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund agreed to provide the country financial support. But despite Chahed's efforts to unlock the loans, Tunis has struggled to meet the international institutions' reform requirements, which include measures to reduce the government's hefty public wage bill. Tunisia's powerful civil society groups, such as the Tunisian General Labour Union and the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, have pushed back against the changes by organizing large strikes in protest. The delays in the reform process caused the IMF to postpone delivery of its second assistance payment, a $314.4 million tranche that it finally approved during the week of June 12.

Beyond contentious economic policies, the oil and natural gas sector in Tunisia's southern and central provinces has also inspired public uproar. Protesters in Tataouine, a province with a long history of government neglect where the energy sector provides one of few opportunities for gainful employment, staged a sit-in that lasted three months, much to the government's consternation. Participants in the demonstration near the oil fields of El Kamour called on Tunis to establish a $40 million local development fund and demanded that 20 percent of the energy revenues generated in Tataouine stay in the province. They also insisted that energy companies relocate their headquarters there and that the government renegotiate its contracts with oil and natural gas firms working in the area. Smaller groups quickly joined the effort, complicating Chahed and Caid Essebsi's attempts to forge a deal with the protesters, but the two sides finally reached an agreement earlier this month. Similar protests have occurred throughout Tunisia, albeit on a smaller scale. Nearly 1,500 demonstrations broke out in April alone. Now that the El Kamour incidents have reinforced the idea that protests can be effective, the tides of resource nationalism will probably continue to swell, frustrating the government's efforts to reform, and draw foreign investors to, Tunisia's energy sector.

Declaring War on Corruption

Chahed and Caid Essebsi haven't made much more progress in the fight against corruption. A common narrative during the Ben Ali administration — and one that lives on today — is that the country's elite enriched themselves through graft. To redress the problem, Tunis has proposed an economic reconciliation bill. The legislation, first proposed by Caid Essebsi in 2015, would grant amnesty to officials accused of financial corruption, theft and misappropriation of state funds under Ben Ali so long as they repaid the money they allegedly stole. That way, the president argues, the government would reclaim funds that it could then funnel into much-needed development projects. But the measure has been a tough sell. Its opponents see the bill as a way for Ben Ali's former officials — many of whom went on to join Nidaa Tounes and its support base — to avoid justice at the hands of the country's Truth and Dignity Commission. The wildly unpopular legislation has been tabled several times, and parliament is still debating the measure since it was last reintroduced in April. An estimated 2,000 protesters in Tunis marched against the bill in May.

In an effort to deflect criticism over the controversial legislation, Chahed declared a "war on corruption" May 25. Authorities arrested a customs official as well as several prominent businessmen in an opening salvo. And during the week of June 12, Chahed made a surprise visit to the Port of Rades in Tunis as the Finance Ministry began investigating dozens of customs officers. As a result of the sweep, the government removed 21 customs officials in senior or sensitive positions and ordered 35 people to appear before a disciplinary council on corruption charges.  

Instead of firming up his reputation as a force against corruption, though, Chahed's war has met with speculation about possible ulterior motives. One of the first businessmen arrested May 25 was Chafik Jarraya. Jarraya, who also faces security-related charges, is believed to be closely associated with several factions in Nidaa Tounes trying to push the prime minister from power. On June 21, three Nidaa Tounes lawmakers were summoned in the Jarraya case, though it is unclear whether they are witnesses or suspects.

Political Decentralization

Notwithstanding the frustrations the government has faced in its other reform initiatives, its attempts at political decentralization are starting to show more promise. Upcoming municipal elections will be a critical step in that endeavor. Disagreements between Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda over important aspects of the election process have delayed the votes time and again. Then in March, parliament approved a law governing procedural matters such as voter registration and polling protocol. The elections are now scheduled for Dec. 17, the seventh anniversary of street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi's self-immolation, which marked the beginning of the Jasmine Revolution and set the Arab Spring in motion. Registration for the elections is already well underway, having started June 19, and Tunisia is on track to hold its first democratic municipal elections at last.

But the votes alone won't be enough to shift greater authority to Tunisia's localities. Though members of parliament have finalized the election law, they have yet to address several important elements of the devolution process. Many of the 12 articles in the Tunisian Constitution that govern decentralization lack clarity. Parliament still needs to pass further legislation, such as a new code formalizing and changing the structure of regional and municipal governments, before power can be delegated from Tunis. The outstanding issues, however, are a subject of much disagreement among the various parties and factions in the legislature.  

Divisions Persist

And so, Tunisia's political divisions will persist and even widen where certain matters are concerned. The rifts in the country's government and legislature, in turn, will continue to impede policy implementation and cause turnover in the administration. Still, they are unlikely to stifle Tunisia's reform effort. The country's leaders and political parties agree that they must resolve their differences within the current political system, and the legal framework that binds it, instead of looking for an alternative. (Many people in Tunisia's younger generations and local protest groups, on the other hand, see Nidaa Tounes as simply another iteration of the Ben Ali administration and lack faith enough in the government to even bother voting.) The pragmatism that prevails in Tunisia's political apparatus has set the country apart from the other states shaken by the Arab Spring.

The Carthage Agreement reflects the commitment among Tunisia's politicians to work within, rather than around, the system. In fact, since the El Kamour protests weakened Chahed's government, Nidaa Tounes has banded together more closely with Ennahda. The parties established a committee June 6 to help them coordinate their activities and move forward with their reforms. At the same time, rumors are swirling that another Cabinet reshuffle could happen after Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, to strengthen their coalition. As general elections approach in 2019, Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda will have little choice but to forge ahead in their marriage of convenience. Nidaa Tounes, after all, could soon find itself on the outside of a government backed by Ennahda if it loses the support of its rival. And without the seats in parliament necessary to build a strong coalition of its own, Ennahda understands that it's better off working with Nidaa Tounes on sensitive reforms than it would be taking on its many opponents alone. 

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