Tunisia's Two Sheikhs Are Frenemies No More

8 MINS READSep 27, 2018 | 09:00 GMT
Tunisian women chant slogans and wave their national flag during a demonstration on Aug. 13, 2018, to mark Tunisia's Women's Day and to demand equal inheritance rights for men and women.

Tunisian women chant slogans and wave their national flag during a demonstration on Aug. 13, 2018, to mark Tunisia's Women's Day and to demand equal inheritance rights for men and women.

  • Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi and Ennahda party leader Rachid Ghannouchi have parted ways politically as power rebalances in Tunisia's parliament and Caid Essebsi's Nidaa Tounes party considers joining the opposition.
  • Prime Minister Youssef Chahed's government will be able to withstand votes of no confidence for now, but his alliance is weak and he will be unable to make major economic reforms.
  • Caid Essebsi is likely to continue prioritizing progressive social issues in the hopes of rallying the fragmented Tunisian secular parties against Ennahda.

For the last four years Tunisian politics have been in near constant disarray, teetering on the brink of a crisis. But an uneasy alliance between President Beji Caid Essebsi, of the secular Nidaa Tounes party, and Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda party, has kept the fragile government functional. Until now. On Sept. 24, Caid Essebsi confirmed rumors that the four-year alliance between the two men, often called Tunisia's Two Sheikhs, was over. The split between the two political power brokers comes not long before Tunisia's parliament reconvenes in October after a two-month recess, and the consequences of the fracture will make it near impossible for the country to implement many necessary economic reforms.

The Big Picture

Tunisia is often described as the major success story of the 2011 Arab Spring. But while the country has established a competitive democracy, it has struggled to get its economy back on its feet. Seven years of political infighting have brought Tunisia to a point where real economic reform simply isn't possible in the short-term.


Tunisia's Troubles After Ben Ali

The Tunisian government's ideological turmoil began after longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fell in 2011. The 2011 election victory by Ennahda — the moderate Islamist party that branched off Tunisia's Muslim Brotherhood — prompted a countrywide discussion about the role of Islam, which continued once Ennahda formed a government alongside two secular parties that intended to write a new Tunisian constitution. The process of drafting the constitution involved Tunisian politicians engaging in vibrant debate over key issues like women's rights, Sharia law and secularism versus Islamism.

Some secular parties, particularly those close to or within the former government of Ben Ali, questioned Ennahda's commitment to democracy and feared the party might follow in the footsteps of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood by eschewing secular parties. In response, they formed opposition parties, including the current president's Nidaa Tounes.

Tensions between Ennahda and various secular parties reached an all-time high after two popular secular politicians were assassinated in 2013. Secular parties organized massive protests, which eventually required intervention from civil society groups. And it was in that mediation that Ghannouchi and Caid Essebsi began working together. Ghannouchi and his Ennahda party pragmatically agreed to step down to resolve the political crisis, and the country soon passed a new constitution accepted by all major political forces.

When 2014 elections were held under the new constitution, Nidaa Tounes won 86 of the 217 seats in parliament and Caid Essebsi won the presidential election. The party formed a coalition government with Ennahda, and since then, Caid Essebsi and Ghannouchi have jointly guided their parties through various disputes to maintain Tunisia's careful political balance. But Tunisia is now facing inevitable economic policy disagreements that are causing divisions within an ever-weakening Nidaa Tounes, a party that contains secular politicians from both the left and the right. Several leftist figures have defected, citing their disagreement with the overall conservative economic outlook of both Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes.

Facing Economic Facts

Tunisia's economy is inherently vulnerable, since the country does not make most of its wealth from hydrocarbons like other countries in the region. Even before the fall of Ben Ali, the economy, largely based on tourism, services and low-end manufacturing, struggled and was a driver of the revolution itself. But since establishing a nascent democracy in 2011, Tunisian politicians have sought to shore up support by increasing public sector employment and subsidies (aka trading handouts for votes). The Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), which consists of almost 5 percent of Tunisia's population and has major political influence, also took advantage of the situation, and has been using its political power to secure lucrative compensation deals, particularly in the public sector.

A diagram showing Tunisia's balance of political power.

Consequently, by 2016 Tunisia's wage bill had reached 14.5 percent of GDP, while the number of civil servants rose from an estimated 600,000 to 900,000. The country is heavily indebted, with an external debt-to-GDP ratio of 80.1 percent, and is suffering from a fiscal deficit. To prevent economic crisis, Tunisia sought a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in May 2016. And the terms of the deal have required austerity measures that have challenged political alliances.

Negotiations over how to meet the IMF's demands lasted two months, with Ghannouchi and Caid Essebsi overseeing discussions among all players, from political parties to civil society groups to the UGTT. The result was the so-called Carthage Agreement of July 2016. In addition to introducing reforms, it established a new national unity government and replaced the former prime minister with low-level Nidaa Tounes politician Youssef Chahed, who was unobjectionable enough to earn consensus support.

For a while, the consensus government worked and was able to implement the first of its reforms, but over the past year tensions have flared. In January, Tunisia implemented its 2018 finance law, which brought another round of austerity measures that increased taxes, decreased subsidies and tried to implement voluntary retirement programs for older public workers. Widespread protests erupted in response, and some 800 demonstrators were detained or arrested. The UGTT, whose members were hit particularly hard by the reforms, publicly opposed the law.

The Prime Minister's Precarious Position

Despite the January protests and the growing unrest in Tunisia, Chahed has been unwilling to soften his reforms, and his position as prime minister is increasingly fragile. Major portions of Nidaa Tounes have recognized that they can broaden the party's support base by opposing him, and the secretary general of UGTT is openly backing a government reshuffle that would remove Chahed.

Ennahda, however, has sided with the prime minister. Chahed has also been able to drum up support from some members of Nidaa Tounes and other center-right conservative parties who fear that removing Chahed would cause too much extra disruption. On Sept. 7, 33 legislators announced a new party, the National Coalition, which supports Chahed and has grown to at least 41 members. Right now, it is roughly the same size as Nidaa Tounes, and by Oct. 1 it could be the second-largest party in parliament.

The National Coalition has rattled Nidaa Tounes' leadership, which gave Chahed a 24-hour ultimatum earlier this month to explain his relationship with the National Coalition and Ennahda. When the prime minister ignored the ultimatum, Nidaa Tounes suspended his party membership. In the future, there will be growing calls for Chahed to step down, though, for now, Chahed may be able to withstand a vote of no confidence as long as both the National Coalition and Ennahda backed him.

Chahed has driven a wedge between Caid Essebsi and Ghannouchi, which the president has widened by attempting to unite the increasingly fragmented secular parties around a social issue. On Aug. 13, Caid Essebsi announced that he would back a proposal for women and men to receive equal inheritance, and he intends to push to make it a law once parliament reopens.

Challenges That Lie Ahead

Against this backdrop, Caid Essebsi and Ghannouchi have called it quits on their relationship, meaning Tunisia's parliament will reconvene next month in the midst of a major transition — just as it begins addressing the many controversial issues on its docket that Chahed is pushing for.

The most significant issue will be the country's 2019 finance act, which has already proved contentious. Chahed has spent months negotiating with the UGTT — which wields substantial power over him — about his next reform plans, which include the privatization of various state-owned businesses (which could affect thousands of UGTT's employees), tax increases, and wage and hiring freezes. But those talks have already failed and the UGTT recently authorized two strikes: one on Oct. 24 at all government agencies and state-owned enterprises, and one on Nov. 22 at all public service and state institutions. 

There is still a chance that the UGTT and the government will reach an agreement, but considering the broad unpopularity of Chahed's reform agenda, Tunisia will likely still experience widespread protests and strikes. More significantly, Chahed will struggle to make any concrete progress on his reforms. Ennahda's support of Chahed is largely pragmatic at this point: The party is content to tacitly support Chahed while allowing the prime minister to remain the face of Tunisia's economic reforms — and the main target of their criticisms. And it is also hoping to benefit from a fragmented secular vote in 2019 national elections.

With Chahed's political future hanging by a thread and the prime minister receiving only limited support from Ennahda, his strictest economic reform measures will almost certainly fail. And if that happens, the lack of austerity measures may prevent the country from fulfilling the IMF's requirements.

Though Tunisia's government has never been the picture of stability, the Essebsi-Ghannouchi alliance has allowed the country to stay afloat amid various political challenges over the past four years. Now that the two rivals are no longer working together, the Tunisian government is set to see a lot more conflict.

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