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The winners and the losers in Tunisia's political dialogue

January 27, 2014 at 10:00 am

Aside from the debate over its relative success or failure, the political dialogue in Tunisia marked the end of one turbulent era and the beginning of another, perhaps more crucial, period for the country. The deal sealed a week ago ended months of uncertainty and anxiety that made most Tunisians very nervous and suspicious.

Nevertheless, the national dialogue, mediated by four national organisations and which ended up by agreeing on a new caretaker prime minister, Mehdi Jomaa, is the second most important event in Tunisia after the October 2011 elections. Even if the outcome of this dialogue has not been accepted by everybody, nobody has criticised the fact that it took place or its results. We should not forget that it was initially the opposition parties along with the four mediators, who are in fact very close to the opposition, which called for this dialogue. Not everybody was a winner, though; some parties and individuals missed a precious opportunity to improve their reputation.

Tunisia’s democratic transition is, to my mind, the biggest winner from the latest political developments. The outcome of the dialogue and the announcement of a new prime minister took Tunisia back onto the democratic path after months of turbulence and confusion. It sent a positive message to the country’s friends and key partners, mainly the Western powers still backing the transition (US, UK, EU, etc.) as well as international financial institutions.

The Al-Nahda Party, which took part in the dialogue that was aimed initially at removing it from power, finally won where its opponents wanted it to fail. The party was criticised by its supporters and members for “surrendering to pressure from the opposition” by accepting the road-map. Some members have even resigned from the party. They not only resigned, but they also announced it publicly, which is in itself a turning point in the party’s history.

Many Tunisians saw in the national dialogue a sort of “soft” coup-d’état, and were shocked to see Al-Nahda accept it, but recent developments and the outcome of the talks showed that the party gained a lot while the opposition was left damaged.

Analysts see that, by adopting the road-map and agreeing to quit power before the elections, Al-Nahda showed Tunisians and the world that they do not stick to power for power’s sake and that consensus and the country’s supreme interests are above everything else. It showed that Al-Nahda’s main concern at this moment is to end, once and for all, the transition period and move on to elections that will give birth to stable, sustainable institutions.

The talks unmasked a large part of the secular and liberal opposition in Tunisia. It was left weaker than ever. Al-Nahda’s major opponents, including the national organisations that mediated the dialogue, failed to give any plausible explanation for accepting or rejecting the candidates for the senior government positions and many other details. They showed clearly that their main interest is to see Al-Nahda out of power; it was not to help reach a consensus and find solutions to the political crisis that has plagued the country for many months.

Refusing the nomination of Ahmed Mestiri, 89, “because of his age” then accepting that of Mustafa Filali, even older at 93, provided the media and public with a lot to talk about the integrity of the opposition. The Popular Front Party announced that the representatives at the talks voted for Jomaa while they were “out for lunch” and that’s why “they do not accept him”; they looked ridiculous.

Some opposition figures, such Laguili Bettayeb, admitted their failure. Bettayeb, an eminent activist and member of the Salvation Front, said that the opposition “will surely lose the coming elections” after what happened at the dialogue.

The Tunisian media and public opinion agreed that Al-Nahda have managed the political talks with the opposition brilliantly. Its smart tactics also succeeded to break-up its opponents: rifts arose among the Salvation Front coalition, Al-Joumhouri Party quit the talks and the coalition with Nidaa Tunis Party, and clans inside Nidaa Tunis showed disagreement (even quarrelled publicly) about leaving the dialogue or not and about accepting the new prime minister or not.

Contrarily to what the public and many observers think, the National Dialogue in Tunisia has only started, not ended, by the choice of Mehdi Jomaa as the prime minister. Talks are to be resumed at the end of this week and might last for months.

According to the so-called road map, drafted by the opposition and agreed upon by the different participants in the talks, the current government, lead by Ali Larayedh, will only leave when three main conditions are fulfilled:

– the country’s new Constitution is fully drafted, debated and voted on at the National Assembly;

– the Electoral Committee is elected by the National Assembly; and

– a precise date for the coming elections is chosen and announced officially.

We should also wait for Mr Jomaa’s cabinet to be constituted, then voted on by the Assembly. This too could take weeks, even months. Besides, the negotiations leading to a consensus on a new government might be more complicated and might take much longer than many would expect, and new disagreements are likely to appear.

The opposition want this cabinet’s members to be fully independent. That will realise their main objective from taking part in the talks to remove Al-Nahda from power. However, Al-Nahda, its allies and other parties may veto suggestions for cabinet posts. In any case, the proposed government must be voted on by the Assembly, wherein Al-Nahda has a majority along with other pro-revolution political forces.

Once constituted and voted for, a lot of challenges will be still facing Tunisia when Mehdi Jomaa and his new cabinet take over. Terrorism is a real threat and corruption is still wide-spread, mainly in the civil service and the judiciary. The law is still not applied to everybody equally and the economy needs drastic measures to boost employment, control prices, attract more foreign investors and put an end to corruption and smuggling. The politicians still have a lot to do to get Tunisia back onto its feet.

The author writes for MEMO from Tunisia

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.