Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party is proposing to exclude politicians associated with the former ruling party from the political process. The measure, says one analyst, “is being seen by some as a tactic to hinder an opposition front to Ennahda and ensure the Islamists’ dominance in the upcoming election.”
The Islamists are facing a challenge from newly resurgent secular parties and the powerful UGTT labor federation, Tunisia’s largest civil society group. The union has called a general strike, only the third to be made since the union emerged in the 1940s, to protest this week’s violent assault on a union demonstration by Ennahda supporters.
“We could be on the verge of, if not a collapse of the government, then a serious challenge to Ennahda’s leadership,” said William Lawrence, the North Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group.
A union leader told AFP the UGTT is calling for the dissolution of the League for the Protection of the Revolution, an organization “close to Ennahda that has developed a reputation for brutal violence,” which it holds responsible for Tuesday’s attack.
The League was accused of beating an opposition party official to death in October.
The headquarters of all national bodies should be “emptied of all tools of violence”, said Ennahda. Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi condemned the violence, but appeared to endorse the League’s narrative by insisting that some leaders of UGTT wanted to overthrow the government.
In Tuesday’s attack, the Islamist assailants chanted, “UGTT, you are thieves, you want to destroy the country,” the BBC reports.
Ennahda’s fear of a more robust opposition in upcoming elections is the likely motive for its support of a proposed bill to exclude politicians once affiliated with the former ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally from political life for ten years, says Tunisian journalist Sana Ajmi.
“Whether or not a concern for the rise of former-regime sympathizers is founded, a bill based on political exclusion and score-settling does not bode well for Tunisia’s fragile political process,” Ajmi writes in Carnegie’s Sada journal of Arab reform.
“By pushing it forward, Ennahda is doing exactly what it claims to protect the revolution from: creating a one-party system and attempting to ensure an opposition vacuum—bringing the ruling party more in line with the RDC than it would perhaps like to admit.”
While analysts contend that Tunisia’s transition “cannot be based on exclusion,” the Islamists appear determined to undermine the emergence of Beji Caid Essebsi’s Nidaa Tunis party, Ajmia asserts:
The pragmatism of which Essebsi’s party boasts and its espousal of “modernist” values—coupled with Ennahda’s perceived failures to deal with pressing socio-economic issues—have all given Nidaa Tunis an edge and a chance to have a strong showing in the coming election. According to a recent poll conducted by the Tunisian poll office and 3C Etude, Ennahda and Nidaa Tunis rank fairly close in popularity. The party has also announced an initiative to merge with the ranks of other center-left parties….in anticipation of the 2013 parliamentary and presidential elections. Essebsi and his followers believe that the only way to counter Ennahda is through a united opposition front.
The Islamist attack on the UGTT is symptomatic of a deeper conflict that recently came to a head in an interior province.
With the two at loggerheads, the threat of a nationwide general strike next week could plunge the economically struggling country back into chaos, endangering its government and its transition to democracy nearly two years after Tunisians ousted a dictator and kicked off the Arab Spring revolutions, AP reports:
In Siliana province, home to some 250,000 people, investment and employment dropped 40 and 60 percent respectively in 2012…. But Siliana’s local governor, a member of Ennahda, refused to meet with the unions to discuss the problem, leading to calls for a general strike.
The response was swift and harsh. Police attacked the demonstrators, while Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali described the entire affair as a plot by the opposition and remnants of the old regime, enraging the protesters further. The crowds grew to more than 10,000 people, many of whom engaged in running street battles with police before the army finally arrived. Five days and more than 300 injured later — police and protesters alike — the governor was suspended and the strike was called off.
“I expect that what happened in Siliana is going to happen in many other places in the future if this government doesn’t try to solve its problems,” said Messaoudi Romdhani, a member of the labor union that first called the strike on Nov. 27 in Siliana. “There is a total absence of communication between this government and civil society.”
Lawrence, the Crisis Group analyst, believes the crisis “is going to get worse before it gets better.”
Ennahda has not proven “economically very adept,” he said. “There has been some creation of public jobs, public works, and some improvements in governance, and some stipends and other social aid. But nothing on the scale of the problem nationwide.”
Lawrence said many of the protesters had probably voted for Ennahda but now consider it responsible for Siliana’s problems and the police actions.
“They want dignified jobs, and they want to be able to protest in a dignified way without getting shot in the eye with birdshot, which is why they were lining up with Molotov cocktails for the next round,” he said. For many, the police brutality was reminiscent of the days of Ben Ali.