Tunisia’s Government is Collapsing, Democratically

Tunisians should not worry about the smoke coming out of the parliament building, Akram Belkaid writes in Le Quotidien d’Oran: the building is not on fire. The fierce struggles in the country’s constituent assembly are actually a hopeful sign. This is above all a political battle; it is not being fought on top of the corpses of murdered protesters.

It would be premature to say that Tunisia has emerged from the institutional crisis that has paralyzed the country for the past few months. Nevertheless, recent developments here are encouraging.

After a lot of hemming and hawing, the Ennahda party has provisionally agreed to resign and put in place an independent caretaker government.

Admittedly, the [mainstream]Islamist party has set numerous conditions for its departure, and the timetable for the change in government is unclear. But it is worth underlining that Ennahda’s agreement to step down-even temporarily-is an extremely important event in an Arab world where peaceful handovers of power are rare.

A notable contrast is of course the case of Egypt, where the army is still shooting the supporters of former president Morsi with live ammunition, and with the apparent blessing of Western governments.

Seen from a Tunisian perspective, the negotiations that are taking place here, what is being called a “national dialogue,” appear rather disheartening.

An assembly of four major labor, professional and human rights organizations organized the dialogue. The talks have however bogged down in a quagmire of absurd and occasionally childish political maneuvering and delaying tactics.

It has become clear that certain deputies from Ennahda are balking at giving up their positions to a caretaker government, believing that they have, after all, popular legitimacy. But this argument carries less and less weight with a public which is demanding a constitution “of its own” and new elections.

For their part, deputies from other parts of the political spectrum keep erecting new obstacles, trying at all costs to prevent the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly before Oct. 23; that would be the two year anniversary of the date that millions of Tunisians came out for the first time in their history to vote freely for their own political representatives.

Tunisians like to say that it’s all about the pensions for these deputies: serving out their full two-year term would entitle them to lifelong retirement pay…

Quibbles, last-minute stipulations, hidden motives (including those of ‘president’ Moncef Marzouki, who visibly wants another term), and even the sudden reemergence of political figures from the bad old days of Ben Ali and his dissolved RCD party: all of this has fueled the exasperation of Tunisians, but also a growing sense of political indifference. “They need to sort this out among themselves,” is a sentence you hear frequently now, a sign that the euphoric political fervor of the revolution has now passed into history.

But taking a step back, looking at Tunisia from the outside, it becomes clear that all of these difficulties are concealing a reality that is much more encouraging than it first appears. Despite the prophecies of doom that Cassandras of all political stripes have been announcing, Tunisians seem to be determined to find a consensus solution; their ‘national dialogue’ is not a mere show.

We know all too well that in far too many Arab countries, Algeria among them, “national dialogues” are nothing but a thin mask for a situation of open conflict if not outright civil war.

Tunisians like to say that “Tunisia is an island.” And here there is some metaphorical truth, because in the end, islanders always end up coming to amicable agreements, or at least finding common ground with one another. The shock, the anger, the outrage that followed the assassinations of [prominent leftists politicians]Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi [in February and July]have provided a strong impetus for the politicians to seek a peaceful solution to the country’s impasse.

Of course, the situation is far from settled. The country is still waiting on the new constitution that the constituent assembly was elected to produce; more than anything else, Tunisia needs a new electoral law that all political parties can agree on. What is at stake in the present political jousting is, of course, the framework for the next elections.

When the leaders of Ennahda agreed to cede power, they risked angering an electoral base that is being courted by salafism and other radical ideas. But they did not do so for purely altruistic reasons; not, as one of them claimed, to show how responsible they are.

In truth, the Islamsist party is well aware of its own growing unpopularity, and of its inability to solve the country’s problems. In particular, the economic situation and the welfare of the country’s population have proven intractable. For that matter, the results of several polls making the rounds in Tunis suggest that Ennahda would not be able to repeat its electoral triumph of 2011.

Some pundits-likely blinded by their detestation for the religious party-are even predicting an outright electoral defeat for Ennahda.

By withdrawing from government- after of course taking the precaution of putting its own people in the bureaucracy – Ennahda is preparing the way for its own triumphal return to power; it is gambling on the near-certainty that the caretaker government will be an unpopular failure.

Understandably, this strategy is being decried by the other parties, who accuse the Islamists of playing a double game. But in the end, what is important to see is that this is a perfectly normal political strategy. The smoke thrown up by this political battle is perhaps hiding from Tunisians the essential truth, which is that their country is winning the most important political battle of all. That is, the struggle to cement its own political transition.

Akram Belkaid Translated from French by International Boulevard