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Why did Ennahda accept an unequal partnership?

March 6, 2015 at 9:56 am

Many observers (not to mention adversaries) in Tunisia and abroad who are not very familiar with the Tunisian scene were puzzled and even shocked at the behaviour of Ennahda’s leaders as they accepted a partial and limited participation – described by some of them as “demeaning” – in the government of Mr Habib Essid.

In fact that criticism is akin to someone who prefers to reserve for himself a full luxurious suite on a ship despite knowing that it is destined to sink, rather than accepting a modest seat on a safe and secure ship.

These commentators, perhaps more concerned about Ennahda than about Tunisia, forget that just a year ago, Ennahda had willingly relinquished office that it had fairly won through free elections. Ennahdha realised that, due to the dramatic changes hitting the region, the country was headed towards an abyss, and that the only way to save it along with the fragile democratic experience was to make sacrifices including leaving the government altogether – a government in a quasi-parliamentary system where the government had increased powers.

That was neither our first sacrifice nor the last. We overcame the desire for just retribution against those who excluded us and persecuted us inside and outside the country for more than a quarter of a century, and yet we chose to oppose political exclusion under the law of the protection of the revolution. We opted to allow them to participate as equal, fully-dignified citizens, entrusting justice to the Transitional Justice process, to take the country through the stages of uncovering truths, healing wounds and attaining forgiveness and reconciliation, so as to bury the grudges inherited from generation to generation.

Moreover, we overcame the desire for power by responsibly giving priority to the national interest, as we decided – in a rare example of rational discipline by a political actor – to withdraw from the presidential race despite the fact that we were the largest party. This was not because of some kind of reluctance to assume office but rather because of a rigorous assessment of the situation: it was not in the best interests of the country and the democratic transition, and the balance of powers would not allow it.

It is our interpretation of what is best for the country and the democratic transition and our evaluation of the balance of powers that not only urged us not to participate in the presidential race but also to go even further and commit to neutrality throughout the entire elections, so as not to jeopardise a major movement.

We shook hands we would not shake before because of political rivalry, when we saw that it was for the good of the country. We even shifted the relationship from one of conflict and incompatibility to one of consensus-building, cooperation and political participation.

Many of the good-hearted people who are sympathetic towards us and the revolution inside and outside the country may not recognise the importance of the huge rescue operation of the Tunisian Spring and the fledgling democratic experience which we have undertaken when we took these steps, leading to what has become known in international political terminology as the “Tunisian exception”. Many people do not know that during 2013 – especially after the Egyptian earthquake – the country was headed towards extreme polarisation and a full-fledged confrontation between two major fronts: the opposition front led by Mr. Beji Caid Essebsi of Nidaa Tunis and its allies and Ennahdha and its allies. The inevitable end was clear: the same fate as the rest of the revolutions of the Arab Spring – the collapse of the transition and the descent into a deep crisis. However, those steps that we took established the principles of consensus, cooperation and participation instead of those of conflict, dispute and exclusion.

Two big trains were heading into an inevitable crash, and these policies managed to divert them onto another track, which enabled us to find ourselves today in a unified government in which all elements of radicalism and exclusion were isolated. Those elements were – and still are – pushing for a clash between us and the Destourians, while we pushed towards the inclusion of everyone in a government of national unity – to which we came very close with the government of Mr. Essid – representing more than three quarters of the Parliament. This is a clear illustration of the consensual approach that crowned the Tunisian Spring and elaborated a new theory for democratic transition policies – that the majority rule of “50+1” may serve as the basis for legitimacy of democratic governance but only in well-established and stable democracies, and that emerging democracies cannot bear the weight of dividing society into two antagonistic halves.

We experienced that extreme polarisation first-hand during our time in office in the years 2012 and 2013. The whole experience risked collapsing to the detriment of all Tunisians were it not for our decision to salvage the situation through dialogue and then withdraw from the government. In difficult and challenging times, such as those the country and the region are currently experiencing, can any government in Tunisia today cope with an opposition as heavy as Ennahdha – or Nidaa Tunis had Ennahdha won the elections? Of course not.

Therein lies the importance of the major historical paradigm shift that we made by developing a new distinctive approach to democratic transition, to the issues of opposition and what is known as the old system, and to the relationship between the two main movements in our nation: the Islamists and the secularists.

In this approach, the size of our participation in the government no longer matters. What is really important is the participation itself, which symbolises the victory of the approach of consensus over the approach of conflict, which encompasses the past without colliding with it or excluding it in a desperate attempt to erase it. The solution to this universal question is to integrate the past and include its positive elements in the new democratic system.

The same holds true for the relationship between Islamists and secularists: inclusion and participation or exclusion and conflict? At that point the size of our participation does not matter either – what matters is that we opened for Tunisia and Ennahdha a new horizon for coexistence, growth and hope, and closed other paths of division and conflict that we and many of our neighbours in the region know well and from which generations suffered. Do we still need more of that?

Our promise during the election campaign was to bring security, peace and development and to improve the conditions of citizens’ lives; we did not call on them to pledge their allegiance to fight opponents to the death. Our nations are already suffering from conflict with enemies that occupy their lands. Is it not time for reconciliation and openness with each other, amongst us all? Is it not time to end the contemptible discourse of exclusion of this or that party? Nations, just like hearts, can – and must – be big enough to find a place for all of us.

It is important to draw the attention of those who miss the bigger picture in rushing to conclusions to the fact that the country is in real need of this participatory approach of sharing responsibilities instead of monopolising power, especially in the context of a historic transitional struggle towards democracy within an unstable and disruptive regional context. The success of any partnership depends on the partners’ deep conviction in the importance of the partnership and its preservation and their readiness to make concessions and the necessary sacrifices to maintain this partnership.

As for the Tunisian example and the path it took, Ennahda emphasises its profound belief in and commitment to partnership, whether the one it previously had within the Troika government or the one it forged in the current phase, where it made painful concessions, just as the other party did.

To its credit, the winning party, while its electoral weight entitles it, according to the constitution, to form the government and head it, accepted not only to appoint a neutral and consensual figure as head of government – who enjoys the broadest powers in the state hierarchy –but also accepted to keep the key ministries (Interior, Justice and Defence) neutral, in order to avoid over-domination and to ensure participation.

Today we have put Tunisia’s train on the rails of partnership and consensus between five parties, especially the two major parties. This sends reassuring messages at home and abroad. Hence, it is important to emphasise today that the Tunisian Spring has once more successfully overcome the perils of turmoil and conflict, and that Tunisians stand united by their state so that it fulfills for them and with them the dreams of Tunisian youth, the revolution’s youth – the dreams of dignity and pride, development and employment.

It is also important that the Tunisian democratic success finds its way to the world, waiting for others in the region to join, and they shall come, slowly but surely, on the path of freedom and dignity, God willing.

Article published on on 11 February 2015

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