The ruling Ennahda party may hold the most seats in the body convened to oversee the writing of a new Tunisian constitution, writes the Stratfor analysis group, but the 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. These tensions boiled over after the Feb. 6 assassination of Chokri Belaid (above), a prominent secular opposition leader, which triggered mass protests and riots.
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.
Ennahda’s rejection of Jebali’s plan [for a government of technocrats] 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.
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.
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.