Saturday, December 20, 2014

Tunisia’s Elections: Old Wounds, New Fears

Source: International Crisis Group
Tunisia’s Elections: Old Wounds, New Fears

Tunisia’s presidential election highlights the multiple divides that trouble the country and region. Unless the winner governs as a truly national leader, representing all Tunisians and not just his base, current tensions could escalate into violence.

The International Crisis Group’s latest briefing, Tunisia’s Elections: Old Wounds, New Fears, analyses the deep anxieties of the country’s political forces and charts a path toward a national compromise. As the region is increasingly polarised, the stakes of the Tunisian presidential election, scheduled for 21 December, are high. Incumbent President Moncef Marzouki, of the Congress for the Republic party, and his opponent Beji Caid Essebsi, a former prime minister and founder of the Nida Tounes party, regard their confrontation as an extension of the regional clash between revolutionary forces (often including Islamists) and counter-revolutionary forces (including elements of the regimes that were shaken or overthrown in 2011). But the chasm between the two camps runs deeper, dividing social classes, pitting established elites from Tunis and the east coast against emerging elites from the south and hinterland, and reviving political conflicts dating to the early independence era.

The briefing’s major findings and recommendations are:
  • Tunisia’s tenuous stability rests largely on the hesitation born of reciprocal fears. One camp dreads the possibility of a return to dictatorship and the harsh repression of Islamist and other oppositional forces; the other warns of growing chaos, accusing the transitional authorities of weak governance. These concerns are amplified by the region’s volatility, from the authoritarian drift and crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and chaos in Libya, to bloody conflict and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Given Tunisia’s peaceful evolution thus far, no one wishes to countenance a descent into similar violence and uncertainty.
  • Whoever wins the presidential election will have to work alongside the new government and parliament to calm both camps’ anxieties, address their legitimate grievances and heal the country’s divisions. As a prelude to a political accord, the defeated candidate should write an open letter expressing his fears (and those of the electorate) to the winner, who should respond publicly.
  • The new president should use his constitutional prerogatives to protect freedoms and advance the transitional-justice process. He should also promote cooperation between the main parties, Nida Tounes and the Islamist An-Nahda, even if a coalition of the two is not possible.
  • Together with the new government and parliament, the president should prioritise addressing domestic inequalities and implement a plan for political decentralisation and non-discrimination, as well as explore ways to stimulate economic growth in neglected regions.
  • A commitment to address these issues by governing institutions and the political class could take the form of a charter of political accountability that would lay out principles and priorities for inclusive politics.
“The presidential election has revealed fault lines in Tunisian society that political elites believed they had erased with their spirit of compromise”, says Michaël Béchir Ayari, Senior Tunisia Analyst. “But the reciprocal fears that maintained the fragile stability for much of 2014 mask the absence of a real consensus and reconciliation, not only between the main political camps, but also between the country’s diverse regions and social classes”.

“Experience of the Arab spring in other countries has shown how revolutions can fail, drift into violence, or become victims of their own success”, says Issandr El Amrani, North Africa Project Director. “For its important experiment to succeed, Tunisia would have to find a middle road between revolution and counter-revolution”.