After successful parliamentary and presidential elections, Tunisia forges ahead with its political transition. While the presidential election raised concerns about the polarization of Tunisian politics, the recent nomination of former regime figure Habib Essid has furthered speculation that the country’s two main political parties—the staunchly secular Nidaa Tounes and the Islamist Ennahda—are moving towards reconciliation.
A controversial choice, Essid served in the Interior Ministry under Tunisia’s former president Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali as chief cabinet secretary from 1997 to 2001, including during the 1999 presidential elections, which were neither free nor fair, allowing Ben Ali to claim victory with 99.4 percent of the vote.
One might have expected Ennahda—which was harshly repressed under the Ben Ali dictatorship—to protest against this appointment. But following Essid’s appointment, Ennahda spokesman Zied Ladhari praised the decision to nominate an independent candidate from outside the majority party, calling it “a positive development,” in stark contrast to statements released by other anti-regime parties, such as the Popular Front and the Democratic Current. Moreover, Ladhari expressed Ennahda’s readiness to collaborate with Essid, who also served as interior minister under former Ennahda prime minister Hamadi Jebali’s transition government.
Conciliatory gestures on both sides
In recent weeks, newly elected president Beji Caid Essebsi of Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda’s leader Rached Ghannouchi seem to be preparing their constituents for the likely reach across the aisle, as well as working to soften their respective images in the eyes of their opponents.
In his first interview as president, Essebsi toned down his routine criticism and mockery of Islamists. Though he continued to blame the Ennahda-led government for Tunisia’s current challenges, he repeated his previous statement that Nidaa Tounes “will not govern alone” and said that the party “does not want to build a partisan government.” Essebsi stopped short of suggesting a Nidaa Tounes–Ennahda coalition in parliament, but his comments introduced the idea that Ennahda could be a responsible political partner, whether in the governing coalition or the opposition.
Following Essebsi’s presidential victory, Ghannouchi also adopted a conciliatory tone towards Essebsi and Nidaa Tounes. In an interview with the Ettounsiya television channel, Ghannouchi adamantly rejected popular criticism that Essebsi is part of the Democratic Constitutional Rally, or RCD (Ben Ali’s old party), or that his victory represents a return to the former regime, saying “all Tunisians are now in the revolutionary framework.” He also emphasized that Essebsi was elected under and will govern according to the revolutionary constitution, which was adopted in January 2014. Ghannouchi even took his praise a step further, saying that, had Ennahda fielded a presidential candidate, Tunisia would not have progressed to its current state.
Taking the High Road
Though Essid has one month to form a coalition government, one thing is clear: Ennahda is trying to emerge the winner, regardless of the new government’s ultimate formation.
Since the Ennahda-led three-party coalition known as the Troika stepped down and transferred power to an interim technocratic government, Ennahda has taken careful, calculated steps to successfully regain trust and restore its strong standing in Tunisian politics. Its initial decision to abstain from the presidential elections sent the strong message that Ennahda was taking its previous governance mistakes seriously and was not—as its anti-Islamist opponents claimed—attempting to seize and monopolize power in the chaos of the revolution’s aftermath. Then, Ennahda’s choice to refrain from endorsing a presidential candidate—much to Essebsi’s dismay—prevented the party from making new enemies in the presidential elections and earned them increased political capital, now and in the future. Ennahda even held celebrations following the legislative elections to celebrate “Tunisian democracy,” despite the party’s poor results. Most recently, Ghannouchi stated that Ennahda would be happy with any coalition outcome, saying: “We are ready to participate in governing; we do not have a problem whether we are in power, or in the opposition.”
The Perils of Victory
Nidaa Tounes, on the other hand, may find itself undone by its own electoral success.
Formed in 2012 as a counterweight to Ennahda, Nidaa Tounes is held together by little more than Essebsi’s cult of personality—largely rooted in a deep nostalgia for Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president and Essebsi’s mentor—and a mutual disdain for Islamists. Moreover, despite Essebsi’s democratic overtures, the party lacks internal democratic organs and has yet to even hold a party congress.
With its weak organization and potentially fickle base, Nidaa Tounes stands on shaky ground. Should it form a coalition government with Ennahda, it risks muddling the party’s message and may lose key supporters who oppose any compromise with Islamists. On the other hand, without Ennahda, Nidaa Tounes would be forced to partner with several smaller party blocs, which would create a weaker and internally contradictory coalition whose members would range from radical leftists to pro-business capitalists—not an ideal combination for a government tasked first and foremost with fixing the Tunisian economy.
Nidaa Tounes also seems unlikely to survive the likely death of the 88-year old Essebsi at some point during his five-year presidential term. For all Essebsi’s invocations of Bourguiba, the parallels between the two grow dangerously uncanny. In 1987, Ben Ali rose to power in a palace coup after assembling a group of doctors that declared Bourguiba unfit to govern. Today, despite Essebsi’s reassurances that he is sound in mind and body, one cannot but wonder if he has failed to learn from history. And though the Tunisian constitution includes sound succession mechanisms in the case of a president’s death, any additional stress on Tunisia’s still fragile democracy could further jeopardize the country’s slow but largely successful democratic transition.
After four years of bumpy transitional politics, Tunisians must now roll up their sleeves and begin the next challenge of actually governing. It will not be glamorous and will likely lack flashy, concrete milestones like new constitutions or widely lauded elections. Nidaa Tounes may have won elections, but they seem increasingly cognizant of Tunisia’s delicate state and the need to work with Ennahda, or at least account for their preferences, as they shepherd Tunis through its continued democratic transition.
Katie Bentivoglio is a Junior Fellow in the Carnegie Middle East program.