By Larbi Sadiki and Layla Saleh
Introduction: A Turbulent Transition
For the third time in six months, Tunisia’s political elites are scrambling to form a new government. This latest saga of political wheeling and dealing came after Elyes El-Fakhfakh’s abrupt resignation earlier this month amidst his conflict of interest (read: corruption) scandal over profiting from government contracts with companies he owns, to the tune of fifteen million dollars, and the appointment of his replacement, Hichem Mechichi, by President Kais Saied. This insight focuses on a series of interrelated and interconnected crises afflicting Tunisia over the past several months, since the September-October 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections.
It is time to go beyond sensationalist coverage and ideological or politicised ‘analysis’ of Tunisia’s dizzying political scene, in the hope that the country’s political elite can get on with the business of governing. To that end, the article considers not just the political implications for the latest developments in the country, but also ponders some of the lessons to be learned at this critical stage in the country’s democratic transition.
Two observations are in order. First, Tunisia may not be ‘exceptional’, but its democratisation deserves contextualised attention. The idiosyncrasy of Tunisia’s transition is its ever-shifting centres of power between the various political actors and even institutions. Parties within and outside of the ruling coalition, as well as individuals, always seem to be looking for an improved sort of power balance to strengthen themselves vis-à-vis other players, even within the same ruling coalition. This constant competitiveness, long after election season ended, likely spurred the revelations of Fafkhfakh’s earnings now under investigation, precipitating his resignation.
Changing coalitions, changes within parties, unsteady dynamics and tugs-of-war between the ‘three presidents’ (President Saied; the now-former head of government, Fakhfakh; and Speaker of Parliament, Rached Ghannouchi) have become an expected feature of Tunisian politics. No consensus seems to exist on anything at the partisan level. The electorate has accepted the country’s basic institutions, but this is not always echoed by politicians and parties. Examples include Saied’s campaigning to change the political system in favour of more direct democracy; the electoral law that is lopsided regarding how seats are counted, making it advantageous to newcomers like Itilaf al-Karama and detrimental to larger parties like Ennahda; parliamentary by-laws (including speaking time, committees, and the option to debate and vote on ‘petitions’); and foreign policy (on Libya, Syria, or other regional powers such as Turkey, Qatar, the UAE, and Egypt). Continuing instability has yielded few set expectations that pattern the behaviour of either voters or political elites. The political scene has neither found nor fully constructed itself. Tunisian politics, nearly ten years after the 2011 uprisings that ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has not yet settled from its institutions to its political culture.
Stemming from this instability, a second related feature is the absence of dominance or hegemony by any political actor, party or individual. Even the largest party, Ennahda, has seen its parliamentary seats plummet from sixty nine to fifty four in the last elections. The question ‘Who governs in Tunisia today?’ is pertinent. Is it the head of government, the speaker of parliament or the president? To an extent, this fragmentation will continue to be part of the landscape in the foreseeable future. Overall, this is a healthy dynamic in Tunisia’s democratisation, making a repeat of the 2013 Egypt coup scenario unlikely.
The ‘conflict of interest’/corruption scandal
The extremely rapid rise and fall of a candidate who received less than 0.5 per cent of Tunisians’ votes when he ran for the presidency in October 2019 has made headlines in and outside Tunisia. His insistent confidence, as pressure mounted by MPs and the media (for instance, his interview with Nawaat), was baffling. Fakhfakh insisted that the judicial process would play out in his favour. Investigations and new reports by the finance ministry and the committee tasked with looking into the conflict of interest allegations were not kind to this short-lived prime minister. The conditions of contracts awarded to companies in which he has at least partial ownership (including Valis) were far from being above board, the reports suggest. Paradoxically, Fakhfakh had promised to lead a government of ‘clarity’ (al-wuduh) and to regain public trust ('adat al-thiqah). These pledges have fallen flat and it will be little wonder if even more voters (particularly young people) sink deeper into political apathy and disillusionment.
The choice of this allegedly corrupt politician to lead government reveals that Saied misfired terribly when he nominated Fakhfakh as the ‘most competent’ person for the position (al-shakhsiyyah al-aqdar) as outlined by Article 89 of the constitution. This was after Ennahda’s nominee, Habib Jemli, failed to deliver a government acceptable to a majority in the legislature. There is irony in a newcomer president, about whom there is general agreement on his ‘clean’ record, choosing a prime minister knee-deep in corruption allegations. The question now is whether Saied’s new appointment, former interior minister Hichem Mechichi, will be able to form a new government? Or will the country head to new elections in three months?
The exploding Fakhfakh scandal came amidst a chaotic parliamentary term. The tireless campaign of the head of the Free Destourian Party, Abir Moussi, against Rached Ghannouchi appears to be bearing fruit. Moussi claims to have secured at least the seventy-three signatures needed for debate and a vote of no confidence in the parliamentary speaker. This situation seemed unlikely a few months ago when she first brought up the idea after a meeting between Ghannouchi and Turkey’s Erdogan, and urged action by Tunisians committed to a ‘civil’ Tunisian state and national security.
Moussi and her party did not secure these gains in a vacuum. They have been boosted by the constant disruptions, name-calling, and time-wasting by an almost anarchic parliament. The sessions debating two petitions in early June – on Libya and an interrogation of Ghannouchi, and on demanding a French apology for colonialism – are cases in point. MPs and their party/coalition blocs appear to have no time for actual deliberation and lawmaking on matters of substantive importance, such as deepening poverty, increasing marginalisation, unmet demands of the El Kamour social movement, and the alarming foreign debt in a Tunisia recovering from the coronavirus.
Parliamentary disruption reached its apex on 16 July as a Free Destourian Party’s sit-in prevented the long-awaited session on voting for nominees for the constitutional court, forcing the session to be moved to a different hall on Monday, 21 July. The antics in parliament may make for dramatic and viral video clips, but the distasteful political altercations, now extending to trading accusations of violence between Ennahda and the Free Destourian Party, are unseemly performances by elected officials. Unpleasant verbal exchanges between Etilaf al-Karamah and Moussi’s party, Moussi’s monologues against Ennahdah, whom she calls ‘Ikhwaniyyah’, as well as Sa'id al-Jaziri’s railing against everyone and everything including his fellow MPs whom he has called ni’aj (sheep), do not contribute to resolving any of Tunisia’s deep challenges. It is probably safe to say that parliament does not inspire the confidence of the voting public. One hopes that voters who still are paying attention will remember that electability does not always translate into skills in debate, persuasion, dialogue, and the kinds of policymaking that the country needs.
Decaying, moving parties
Tunisia’s new parties exhibit constant change internally as well as toward each other. Alliances even within the ruling coalition (Ennahda, Al-Tayyar al-Dimuqrati, Harakat al-Sha’b, Tahya Tounes, and independents) survived for barely a few months. Ennahda has been, among other things, accused of playing both sides – opposition and government – as it secured votes by the opposition (Etilaf al-Karamah and Qalb Tounes) in Parliament. (The rejoinder is that the government coalition is not reflected in relations within Parliament.) The ruling coalition turned out to be highly problematic. It became Ennahdah vs the rest, it seems, with severe attacks in the media, by Harakat al-Sha'b (Salim Labyad) and al-Tayyar al-Dimuqrati (al-'Ajbuni and Samia 'Abbo) against the Islamists with whom they were coalition partners.
Ennahda was indiscreet, announcing days before Fakhfakh’s resignation that it was entering talks with the president about forming a new government. The party was rebuffed by Saied, who claimed publicly, and in the presence of Fakhfakh, that he refused to be ‘blackmailed’, and that he was neither part of nor committed to decisions made ‘behind closed doors’. Fakhfakh promptly dismissed Ennahda’s ministers before resigning. This final move was telling, pointing to a lack of political coexistence and congeniality between parties and individuals in the five-month-old governing coalition.
Meanwhile, discord within Ennahda continues with it being hit by a number of high-level resignations, most notably that of Abdelhamid Jlassi in March. Dissenting voices against Ghannouchi, and debate about whether or not he will seek to change the party’s by-laws to renew his leadership, may pause until a new government is formed. Yet all eyes are on Ennahda and its impending eleventh congress. Another coalition member, Qalb Tounes, suffers from internal problems, including resignations and losing MPs in its parliamentary delegation, which has shrunk from thirty-eight to twenty-seven. Yet, Nabil Karoui’s party may be making a comeback. (Another irony is that Karoui himself was imprisoned during the presidential campaign on corruption allegations.) Will it ally with Ennahda and Etilaf al-Karamah? That seems possible, but nothing is certain.
The rightist Etilaf al-Karamah makes headlines, but its MPs seem amateurish. Party leaders Makhlouf and Alawi prioritise showy speeches over substantive debate. They may be counterpoints to Moussi, doing their fair share of playing into regional politics. Etilaf al-Karamah has thus not been inconsequential in this year’s political events, but its performance is far from validating the revolutionary discourse of its campaign and its slogans such as halat wa’i (state of enhanced consciousness).
Informal politics: responding to socioeconomic challenges
Outside the country’s formal institutions, the biggest story has been the ongoing Kamour protests. Most recently, it has disrupted gas production after mediation failed. Protests also rocked Ramada in the governorate of Tataouine, after the killing of a young man by security forces. The Kamour protesters are adamant that the 2017 agreement with Youssef Chahed’s government, promising jobs and a regional development fund, be honoured. In addition, they insist that the government travel southward to Tataouine and insist ‘al-tafawud fi al-Kamour wa laysa fi al-kusoor’ (negotiations in Kamour, not in castles). The state’s security reflex in Ramada and the rest of Tataouine is, of course, worrying almost ten years into the country’s democratic transition.
Tataouine’s protests exemplify Tunisia’s huge challenges. The country faces not just the political task of forming a new government, but also a contracting economy hit by the coronavirus. A newly reopened tourism sector may do little to offset the budget deficit or create jobs for the unemployed. If Fakhfakh accomplished anything during his brief tenure, it was burying the country deeper in foreign debt, perhaps over a billion dollars just in the months since the epidemic began. There appear to be no economic fixes (quick or otherwise) on the horizon, as the ‘multiple marginalization’ of regional (under)development, despite being a commonly articulated concern on the lips of politicians, is a huge problem that grows more urgent by the day. Political unruliness (protests, sit-ins, etc.) in Kamour are not likely to suddenly disappear.
Lessons for democratisation
The dramatic turn of events in Tunisia reminds one that corruption is deeply entrenched in the country. A pertinent question is: ‘How did it come to pass that Fakhfakh was approved by parliament to head the government?’ Furthermore, why was he not vetted more thoroughly? The silver lining of this entire scandal may be that he did not get further into his premiership and make millions more dollars than most Tunisians would only dream of earning in their lifetime. A transitional justice process was cut short when the Truth and Dignity Commission’s mandate ended eighteen months ago. That, along with the economic Reconciliation Law (qanun al-musalahah) of 2018 is quite worrying. Fakhfakh may have been a newcomer to corruption, but there are countless other businesspeople profiting from suspicious deals, including from the Ben Ali era. Moreover, Fakhfakhgate demonstrates how corruption can undermine the entire political process. Consequently, regional development cannot be ignored. Mitigating Tunisia’s inequalities is one side of the oin of political institution-building. Economic development for the country’s marginalised population is a necessary and urgent undertaking.
Among the country’s political elites, MPs and politicians might all benefit from a lesson or two in civility. They would do well to brush up on discourse ethics (how to conduct respectful dialogue), and the parliamentary decorum expected of those elected into office. Disagreement is expected, even encouraged, in a democracy, but the level of personal attacks has reached an unprecedented low. Even basic parliamentary procedure appears to be too much to ask of this batch of MPs. Interruptions, yelling, and a lack of respect for physical space are all violations of the parliament’s by-laws, which appear meaningless as the speaker of parliament or his two deputy speakers (Samira al-Chaouachi and Tariq al-Fatiti) are unable to control their colleagues’ antics. Parliamentary etiquette is a prerequisite for substantive deliberation and lawmaking; it is not mere ornamentation, as indicated by the meagre accomplishments of this parliament.
She may divide people, but Abir Moussi is a fast-rising political force in the country. Her imprint is on much of what happens in Tunisian politics today, inflecting political discourse from foreign policy (vis-à-vis Libya or Turkey) to Islamism (in her campaign against Ennahda and outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood), to development (where she is head of the Committee on Industry and Trade in parliament), to parliamentary procedure (it was she who activated the ‘war of the petitions’.) Referred to by many as the neo-Tajamu’ leader, she may never get the presidency, but she has a clear future ahead of her.
Improving inter-party dynamics is an important challenge for Tunisian democratic learning. Parties and coalitions may gain a great deal from an extraparliamentary platform for dialogue in an attempt to map out common ground and mutual acceptance, and some level of professional, collegial tolerance and coexistence. Tunisia’s parties seem not to debate head-to-head, but indirectly, via the media, press conferences, statements and facebook posts. Direct encounters and interactions would be beneficial to all, would enrich political life generally, and may go some way towards blunting some of the discord and fracturing, affecting the goings-on in and between the offices of the president, prime minister and parliamentary speaker.
Ennahdah, the country’s largest party, needs serious reflection and to focus on regaining voters and reconnecting with its base. If it has learned anything from the last nine months, Nahdaouis should, by now, be keenly aware that without the numbers, they cannot accomplish much. The backsliding in vote share and parliamentary seats should be a problem that they place centre stage, strategising on how to woo back their voters. These internal reviews should be as big a concern at Ennahdah’s next congress as the fateful decision about the party’s leadership.
Saied seemed to have drawn out the electorate (particularly youth), but mounting disinterest in voting and formal politics suggest he has not lived up to the hype. The president appears aloof, and fumbling when he does decide to express clear views on contentious political issues. He could play a more constructive role in the midst of all the disharmony, especially since he is supposedly party-neutral. The instability of the past few months has laid bare the challenges of governing in this pilloried system. Endless wrangling between the three most important political offices and a parliament where no party has a clear majority have resulted in deadlock. Perhaps the drafters of the constitution did not anticipate this. Politicians, parties and voters now know that, in Tunisia, pluralism can bring it political fragmentation. It is up to the creativity and civic-mindedness of all political actors vested in the democratic transition to ensure that fragmentation does not obstruct the smooth functioning of the country’s political institutions. Democracy, after all, is meant to solve real problems for real people.
Looking forward: political paralysis and democratisation
The current mayhem confirms that perfect procedural execution does not mean that democratisation unfolds. If there is something to be said about the North African country, it is that, procedurally, everything is going according to plan. The hold-up is not in the democratic machinery, processes, institutions, and procedures which are, on the whole, operating as they should (even if the Constitutional Court nomination process being held up again by the Free Destourian Party’s sit-in). Rather, the problem is in the stock of values that seem not to have matured: moderation, inclusiveness, dialogue, compromise, tolerance, and so forth. Further, we see very serious remnants of ideological divides that rise to the level of personal animosities (for example, between Ennahda members and Moussi). Politicians have not been able to transcend the polarisation that interferes in the business of government.
Tunisia’s political parties are fragile and have no permanence in constituency, policy or leadership. Far from settled, they all display symptoms of attrition and decay. All are receding, losing the public to varying degrees. Ennahda is beleaguered by huge problems and seems to be in denial, and the Islamist (or ‘Muslim Democrat’, as it has described itself since 2016) party is sorely in need of renewal. It has not successfully engaged with its ideological foes, and currently engages with the always controversial Etilaf Al-Karamah and Qalb Tounes. This unease with other political players has become a huge predicament. Ennahda has not been able to politically penetrate anything: any ideology, the constituencies of other parties, the leaderships of other parties. This failure does not mean that there are no leaders or interlocutors within the party who might be able to reach out and communicate with other political actors, but this is the exception, not the rule.
As for party leader Rached Ghannouchi, he has done all he can. There is not much more he can offer to Tunisian politics, nor can he climb up any other political ladder. He will neither become president nor prime minister of the country. He did well in steering his party into routinising its role in Tunisian politics, has been successful in normalising his party as a major player in the political scene, and in contributing to building democratic institutions since 2011 (including the 2014 constitution). He has earned himself a place in the annals of the country’s political history. Highlighting the fact that he has outlived his political career is his very contentious role at the head of parliament. One the one hand, it is convenient for other parties to blame Ennahda when everyone shares responsibility in the widely remarked-upon chaos in parliament. Yet, it may not be false that parliament is dysfunctional partly because people do not want to work with Ghannouchi. For whatever reason, people across the political spectrum have problems with him. Moreover, at this level of performance he is not doing well either, having proved over the past five months his inability to be a suitable moderator of parliamentary sessions or debates. Having such a lightning-rod figure leading parliament in such a fragmented political landscape does not facilitate a stumbling democratic transition. It may be best for Tunisia’s democratisation, and even for Ennahda, if Ghannouchi resigns as speaker.
The other parties have a ‘tall poppy syndrome’; they share the perception that there is a constant threat from Ennahda, which is mobilised to dominate the entire political system and the state itself. This position of almost intimidation is reflected in expressions of concern that Ennahda is ‘taking over’ various institutions and processes in the country. The hubbub over the office of the parliamentary speaker is one example.
Kaiss Saied exaggerates when he ominously warns that the Tunisian state is under threat. What is clear is that Tunisia’s politicians, parties, and their respective political institutions have not risen to the occasion of the country’s pressing socioeconomic needs. It is fair to say that the deprivation, marginalisation, and socioeconomic exclusion that gave birth to the revolution in late 2010 have not been adequately addressed, let alone resolved. Democracy is a medium that facilitates delivering the goods: the sharing and organising of power and resources and the putting in place of processes that facilitate the arrival, execution and implementation of laws and constitutional rights, such as clean water, employment, regional development, access to decent healthcare and education, among others. This has not happened.
The incessant commotion in parliament has created endless digressions, diverting from the business of governing. This parliament has passed only nineteen pieces of legislation in its first session, compared to forty-three in the 2014 to 2019 parliament. In the wake of Covid-19, Tunisia is confronting increasing debt, exclusion, rising unemployment, and an economy that is stalled, according to all indicators. Politicians should take their electoral mandate more seriously, living up to whatever lowered expectations Tunisians have of their democratically-elected representatives and their nascent political institutions.
The uncertainty that comes with democracy may be the price to pay for institutionalised freedom, equality, rule of law, etc. Democracy remains preferable to any other political system. The Tunisian experiment has demonstrated that democracy may bring to power people who are not necessarily qualified to govern, particularly in times of repeated or continual crises. The ‘three presidencies’ has proven to be a drawback to effective governance: Tunisia has a very inexperienced head of state, with no vision, experience or history of struggle; an octogenarian head of parliament who courts controversy and even rejection; and a head of the executive branch (who has just left) mired in corruption allegations.
A kind of chaos continues in the search for Tunisia’s next government. All eyes are on the Arab world’s first democratising country, to see what surprises await.
* Larbi Sadiki is a full professor of Arab Democratization, Qatar University, and Layla Saleh is an associate professor of International Relations, Qatar University