Tunisia’s political transition has proven to be a dangerous one. Since the elections of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) on October 23, 2011, the country’s security situation has deteriorated sharply. Political violence is increasingly threatening. The government has taken some steps toward reform, but unless it can more effectively stem the tide of civil disobedience, radical opposition, and terrorism, Tunisia could be headed for crisis.
After the resignation of then prime minister Hamadi Jebali in February 2013, Ali Laarayedh became the leader of the Tunisian troika—a coalition of the Islamist Ennahda Party and two secular parties that rules the country. Laarayedh’s government has, since its formation on March 8, set itself the task of continuing the reform process and ensuring that favorable conditions are in place for general elections to be held before the end of the year.
Initially, Laarayedh seemed to be making progress on these goals. The national dialogue initiatives, launched first by civil society groups such as the Tunisian General Labor Union and then by the president of the republic, were supported by the majority of the political class. These dialogues allowed members of the ruling parties, political opposition, and civil society to discuss economic, political, and security issues to be considered in the country’s new constitution. Real progress was made, and consensus would have been achieved were it not for last-minute refusals and withdrawals from the dialogue process related to the much-debated draft constitution. In an attempt to move forward, a compromise committee of experts has been created within the NCA to draft the constitution.
However, a sharp decline in the country’s security situation threatens to further derail this progress. The political assassination of opposition leader and NCA member Mohamed Brahmi on July 25 dealt a shattering blow to the national dialogue process. After Brahmi’s funeral, a huge crowd headed toward the NCA headquarters in Bardo. The protesters began a sit-in to demand the assembly’s dissolution and the government's resignation. They were joined by many elected officials who suspended their participation in the assembly’s meetings—60 out of 217 officials are currently protesting—as well as by lawyers, artists, and teachers. The determination of the participants in the protest, now dubbed the “sit-in for the departure” (“itissam arrahil”), is to remain in place until the dissolution of the NCA. This protest is occurring amid a growing terrorist threat. During the national mourning for Brahmi, two homemade bombs exploded in suburbs of Tunis.
The political and security crisis was further exacerbated by the death of eight soldiers patrolling in Mount Chaambi, an area on the border with Algeria where Islamist rebels are known to be active. In retaliation, the army fired on Mount Chaambi, chasing groups of jihadist terrorists and bombing their positions. Just one hour before the massacre, the prime minister had made a speech giving assurances about the security situation.
Laarayedh also faces a growing antigovernment opposition movement that was encouraged by the large protests against now-deposed president Mohamed Morsi in Egypt. Tunisian youth launched a “Tamarrud” or “Rebel” movement similar to the one created in Egypt, and the opposition began to speak of “the end of political Islam.”
Throughout the country, in cities marginalized in development and disappointed by the unfulfilled promises of politicians and new leaders, the central authority is losing ground to the protest movement and regional committees of the National Salvation Front, a coalition of parties demanding the government’s dissolution. In some towns, these committees have replaced the local authorities. In Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the revolution and of the late Mohamed Brahmi, the governor was driven away, Ennahda’s headquarters were burned, and the city is now led by a youth committee. A similar situation prevails in Kairouan, a town known as a bastion of Islamism and Salafism, as well as other cities such as Sfax, Sousse, Siliana, Gafsa, Gabès, and Jendouba.
The government has tried in vain to address the political violence, protests, and terrorism. The police implemented a crackdown against the protesters, including the elected officials who are staging a sit-in and demanding the government’s dissolution. This approach quickly gave way to a strategy of trying to manage the security of the protest site, a public square situated in front of the Bardo Palace where the NCA headquarters are located. The military installed barbed wire at the center of the square to prevent protesters from accessing the headquarters of the assembly and to separate them from Ennahda supporters who had gathered on the other side of the square. This spatial and political polarization of the public space only exacerbated the tensions between the secularists and the Islamists.
Ennahda and its allies in the troika have also struggled to handle the rising Tamarrud movement, arguing that their government does not share the Egyptian government’s failures and that an Egyptian military takeover scenario is highly unlikely in Tunisia. Unlike in Egypt, supporters of the Tamarrud movement in Tunisia remain, for now, limited in number and have had limited impact, and the army remains politically neutral.
The institutional political opposition is taking the lead in trying to keep the opposition united and peaceful. It is seeking to solidify what is referred to as a “sacred union” between the two main parties of the opposition, the Nidaa Tounes Party and the Popular Front, and the two major organizations representing civil society, the Tunisian General Labor Union and the Tunisian Union for Industry, Trade, and Handicrafts. Against the pressing demands of those regions ruled by regional committees—which, in many cases, represent a more radical opposition than the mainstream opposition—Ennahda is standing its ground. The central authority is defending its electoral legitimacy and right to govern.
In spite of the escalating tensions, the government and opposition have reached some compromises. Ennahda has apparently accepted the idea of a national unity government encompassing all political tendencies. The opposition has called for a government of national salvation made only of technocrats but has also expressed its readiness not to dissolve the NCA and instead to limit its mandate.
But these steps have not been enough to forestall the current political and security crisis. In order to ward off the threat of civil war, the government and the main parties of the opposition must move forward in forming a new inclusive government, resuming the national dialogue meetings, and completing the drafting of the constitution. If the key forces of the political mainstream, both Islamist and secular, do not work together to find a way out of the current crisis, the country could fall prey to more radical and militarized tendencies.
Tunisia has come a long way since the first days of the revolution. These gains should be consolidated, not lost to division and radicalization.