After assassination, Tunisia undertakes crucial debate

Most major parties say they must agree on a path forward in the wake of an opposition leader's assassination, a move some say marks a key evolution in Tunisia's transition to democracy.

Anis Mili/Reuters
A woman stands next to a poster of assassinated leftist politician Chokri Belaid during a demonstration, calling for Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali and his cabinet to step down, at the National Constituent Assembly in Tunis, Monday.
Hassene Dridi/AP
Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali walks back to his home Monday, in Tunis.

Tunisia has so far enjoyed the smoothest transition in the Arab Spring. But following the murder last week of an opposition political leader, the country's progress toward democracy has veered into crisis, thanks in part to squabbling among its new leaders.

Two years after the fall of its dictatorship, they are now competing against each other to get the country back on track, with political parties huddled in talks over how to replace a widely discredited government.

Even that sort of debate is a step forward from blustery identity politics that prevailed in the wake of revolution. But critics warn that much more work remains, while ordinary Tunisians fret increasingly over a flagging economy.

On one hand, Tunisia has become a political laboratory since protests helped topple former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, says Lilia Weslaty, a journalist and commentator for Nawaat, an award-winning political blog based in Tunis.

“But it’s too early to say we’re a democracy,” she says. “The most we can say is that we’re in a post-dictatorial phase.”

Shouting matches

For some, Tunisia’s new troubles mirror turmoil that wracked the country following Mr. Ben Ali’s overthrow. Then, continued protests prompted cabinet reshuffles as interim leaders struggled to appease demonstrators intent on purging politics of his regime.

Veteran politician Béji Caid Essebsi is credited by many with steering Tunisia through a turbulent year as head of an interim government. Yet uncertainty coupled with the eurozone crisis dented tourism and investment, with real GDP growth shrinking by 1.8 percent in 2011 and unemployment rising to 19 percent.

Politics became largely a shouting match between the moderate Islamist Ennahda party and a host of secular parties over the role of religion in public life. But after sweeping October 2011 elections, Ennahda formed a coalition government with two secularist parties, seen as an experiment in powersharing.

That government has struggled. The secularist Congrès pour la République (CPR) and Ettakatol parties have clashed with Ennahda over religious issues and accused it of hogging power. Since last summer, they have demanded that Ennahda relinquish control of key ministries, including foreign affairs and justice.

Meanwhile, opposition parties have accused the government of failing to discipline violent groups, from hardline salafi Muslims to pro-government demonstrators called the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution who have brawled with anti-government protesters. Many Tunisians complain of persistent malaise; unemployment is still high, at around 17 percent. Editor's note: This paragraph has been edited to correct a translation error.

Anger exploded Feb. 6 after an unknown assailant shot Chokri Belaid, a fervent government critic, as he left his house. Thousands turned out in protest and even more attended his funeral in Tunis on Feb. 8. Some blamed the government for Mr. Belaid’s death, and many called for its removal.

Proposals emerge

The response from leaders has been a flurry of proposals for forming a new government, with everything up for debate from the names and affiliations of new cabinet members to the way they are chosen.

Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, from Ennahda, wants to replace the current lineup with apolitical technocrats, and argues that urgency warrants bypassing a potential vote by Tunisia’s constituent assembly. He has promised to stand down if enough parties oppose his plan.

Some opposition parties have warmed to Mr. Jebali’s proposal, including the influential Republican Party and Nida Tounes, a rising star founded last year by Mr. Essebsi.

Ennahda, however, favors a mixed approach –  technocrats in most seats, but politicians continuing to run key ministries, subject to a vote by the constituent assembly, says Faycel Naceur, the vice president of Ennahda’s communications office.

The CPR, Ennahda’s coalition partner and the party of president Moncef Marzouki, also wants a new government subject to a constituent assembly vote. Today the  party postponed possible withdrawal from the government for a week, but restated its demand that Ennahda  give up the foreign affairs and justice ministries.

The Nida Tounes party could also prove a sticking point. Ennahda refuses to hold direct talks with the party, says Mr. Naceur, because it says Nida Tounes contains too many vestiges of past regimes – starting with Essebsi himself, a minister under Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba.

Yet most major parties say they must agree on a path forward. For Naceur, that attitude reflects a broader evolution in Tunisia.

“Tunisian society is progressing toward building a democracy,” he says. “Even the conflicts and polemics are nevertheless a form of movement – a sign that something is taking shape.”

More time needed

Tunisia has come far since Ben Ali’s time, when politics amounted largely to presidential diktats behind a façade of democracy and a menacing array of security forces that bullied – and in some cases tortured – most ordinary Tunisians into silence.

Dozens of new parties – as well as a few former opposition parties under Ben Ali – competed in the 2011 elections. Tunisians are no longer afraid to talk freely. The constituent assembly is a democratic body, and while sometimes plagued by bickering and absenteeism, generally functions as such.

However, a new government may become a Band-Aid on problems of governance, says journalist Ms. Weslaty – not a cure. She expects Ennahda to try to keep control of key ministries, which could invite future squabbles, while state institutions including the police and court system still need reform.

Then there’s the economy, increasingly the chief concern of many Tunisians. One is Mohamed Binzerti, a women’s clothing merchant on a working class market street in Tunis. He doesn’t know much about politics, he says, but he does know that business has plummeted for him over the past two years.

Could a new government – technocrat or otherwise – do better? Mr. Binzerti isn’t sure. “Imagine you ran this shop for four or five years – you’d probably do alright,” he says. “But let’s say you came in fresh – you’d need a year to get the hang of things.”

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