Tunisia made positive headlines again on Feb. 2 after its newly appointed prime minister, Habib Essid, announced an inclusive coalition government whose members include representatives of the Islamist Ennahda party.
For many activists inside Nidaa Tunis, a party built on the back of anti-Islamist opposition that won legislative and presidential elections in the fall, the new cabinet came as a shock. On Feb. 2, Taieb Baccouche, secretary general of Nidaa Tunis and minister of foreign affairs in the newly announced cabinet, addressed Nidaa members protesting outside the party’s headquarters in Tunis’s Lac district, reassuring them that he, too, wished Ennahda would have stayed in the opposition. Abdelaziz Kotti, a Nidaa member of parliament, and other prominent party members have spoken out against the decision to involve Ennahda. Likewise Hamma Hammami, head of the leftist Popular Front, which has 15 seats in parliament, also announced his party would oppose the government, largely due to its inclusion of Islamists. The Popular Front, comprised of leftists and trade unionists, staunchly opposes any inclusion of Ennahda, a party it claims is indirectly responsible for the assassinations of two of its members, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, in 2013.
Despite the dissatisfaction of many leftists and secularists who categorically oppose Ennahda’s involvement, Essid’s line-up will likely be accepted on Feb. 4 when it is put before the parliament for approval. Bolstered by the support of four major parties – Afek Tunis (with 8 seats), Ennahda (69 seats), the Free Patriotic Union (referred to by its French acronym, UPL, which has 16 seats), and Nidaa Tunis (86 seats) – the new government enjoys the support of a comfortable enough majority (179 seats in total) to surpass the magic number needed for a confirmation vote (109 out of a 217 member parliament), even if some Nidaa Tunis MPs abstain or vote against it.
If confirmed in parliament, this new government would send reassuring signals that Tunisia is stepping toward pluralism and farther from the politics of exclusion, which is destabilizing so many of its neighbors. However, as with many milestones toward dialogue and democracy in Tunisia over the past four years, the creation of this government wasn’t the inevitable result of some sort of national predisposition toward consensus and compromise. Rather, it came after hard bargaining and represented the reversal of an initial proposed government that was, in fact, startlingly non-inclusive.
Essid proposed the current cabinet, what we might call Essid 2.0, just nine days after initially announcing a cabinet of ministers that involved only two parties – Nidaa Tunis and UPL. Out of the 24 ministerial positions, this first proposed government included 10 posts for members of Nidaa Tunis’s Executive Bureau and three posts for UPL, with the remaining 11 posts distributed among independent “technocrats,” many of whom revolved in Nidaa’s orbit. Distributions among the 15 secretaries of state broke down along similar lines, with a single post given to one additional political party, the National Salvation Front (NSF), which has just one seat in parliament. Other parties quickly denounced the proposed government, with Ennahda, the Popular Front and Afek Tunis labeling it as non-representative and indicating their parliamentary blocs would vote against it.
The lack of political inclusivity manifested in this first government was surprising, and presented strategic impediments to Nidaa Tunis’s leadership in parliament. To attain 109 seats needed for a parliamentary majority, Nidaa – with 86 seats – had to rein together a coalition that involved parties beyond UPL and the NSF. Yet those three parties, with just 106 seats between them, were the only parties represented in the proposed government. Afek Tunis, a secular and economically liberal party that had stayed quite close to Nidaa over the past two years, was widely expected to be a coalition partner to Nidaa.
Indeed, a Nidaa–UPL–Afek coalition would have been weak, with just 110 seats, 111* if NSF were included. However, such a coalition would have satisfied anti-Islamist hardliners inside Nidaa who staunchly opposed inclusion of Ennahda, thereby possibly delaying what many observers see as an almost inevitable split within Nidaa between anti-Islamist exclusionists (who tend to be leftist in their political background and ideological orientation) and more strategically oriented pragmatists willing to accommodate and even include Ennahda in return for its accepting some share of political risk.
The first proposed government was therefore befuddling to outside analysts trying to ascertain Nidaa Tunis’s strategic motivations. Comprised of mainly Nidaa leaders and affiliated technocrats, the first government involved high ownership and therefore high political risk for Nidaa, a party that – despite handily winning legislative and presidential elections this fall – faces massive economic and security challenges during its coming five years in power. Votes for Nidaa in both elections were additionally divided along stark regional lines, with the interior and south of Tunisia strongly opposing the presidential bid of Nidaa’s founder and former party leader Beji Caid Essesbi and voting instead for his rival, former president Moncef Marzouki. Riots and attacks on police stations followed the elections in some southern cities, largely in protest against Nidaa Tunis, which many Tunisians saw and still see as a soft restoration of the Ben Ali regime – or, as one Tunisian recently put it, “old boukha [the traditional Tunisian homemade liquor] in new bottles.”
Political risk was therefore high for Nidaa Tunis moving into this period of governance, and it would have made strong pragmatic sense to distribute some of that risk among other political parties, as Ennahda had done following its resounding electoral victory in 2011, when it moved to include centrist and secular parties like the Congress for the Republic (CPR) and Ettakatol in its so-called “troika” coalition.
Why, then, did Nidaa Tunis initially propose a non-inclusive government that could not garner enough votes, even, for a parliamentary majority? The answer likely lies in Nidaa Tunis’s internal politics, and in the large number of promises now-President Essebsi made regarding distribution of ministerial posts to party members and supporters. Essebsi formed Nidaa Tunis in summer 2012 largely as a reaction against Ennahda’s 2011 victory. This victory of a party whose members had been almost completely silenced in Tunisia for over 20 years – a combination of ousted dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s repressive policies, which included torture, exile, mass imprisonment and routine harassment of Islamists and, to a lesser extent, secular leftists and human rights activists – flabbergasted many Tunisians, particularly leftists, secularists and coastal political elites, some of whom had worked in the regimes of Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali. In response, large numbers of people opposed to Ennahda’s rise set aside their differences to defeat what many saw as the biggest threat to Tunisian modernity and sometimes their own political goals and class-based interests: Islamism. Nidaa Tunis was, therefore, more of an ad-hoc electoral front than a cohesive political party from the start, and functioned as a broad umbrella encompassing “Destourians” (supporters of Bourguiba’s approach to state prestige and secular modernity), leftists, trade unionists, prominent businesspeople and RCDists (member’s of Ben Ali’s now disbanded political party the Democratic Constitutional Rally).
Other than Anne Wolf’s April 2014 report “Can Secular Parties Lead the New Tunisia?” little sustained, academic research has analyzed the internal organization of Nidaa Tunis. Ascertaining precisely where the party stands on key issues, or if it stands as a party at all, can be difficult given the absence of internal democratic institutions inside Nidaa, such as party congresses or representative leadership organs. The diversity inside Nidaa Tunis – whose opposition to Ennahda has won it support among leaders of both Tunisia’s most prominent trade union, UGTT, and its employers’ union, UTICA – however, has made it difficult for the party to craft clear stances on economic policy and other programmatic issues.
Following Nidaa Tunis’s victory in the October 2014 legislative elections, it became increasingly apparent that fissures were deepening between individuals accepting of a coalition with Ennahda based on economic and pragmatic political lines, and individuals staunchly opposed to Ennahda largely on ideological grounds. In my recent interviews with Nidaa leaders, some commented that a coalition with Ennahda would almost assuredly split Nidaa, with “Baccouchist” anti-Islamist leftists breaking away from more accommodationist pragmatists to form their own party.
Some harkened back to the experience of Ettakatol, the party of former Constituent Assembly Speaker Mustapha Ben Jafaar, which imploded in a variety of directions after he agreed to go into coalition with an Ennahda-led government in 2011. Like Ettakatol, Nidaa Tunis coalesced around the charismatic leadership of one individual, Essebsi, and lacked the internal democratic institutions to enable its members to vote clearly in favor of or against going into coalition with Ennahda. Ministries were double and sometimes triple-promised to individuals in the party, and many people hung close to Essebsi in hopes that they’d be rewarded with a ministry or prominent secretarial post after the elections. The initial formation of Tunisia’s new government, then – Essid 1.0 – was likely an outgrowth of the competitive clientalism inside Nidaa Tunis, and the desire, perhaps, to delay splits within the party. Short-term intra-party dynamics, as opposed to longer-term inter-party gamesmanship and political risk distribution, thus played a large role in the composition of the first proposed government, a government that – based on sheer numbers alone – was quite clearly destined to fail a parliamentary confidence vote.
This second iteration of the government, Essid 2.0, represents a significantly more inclusive attempt at coalition. Though Ennahda’s participation remains the lightning-rod issue for many anti-Islamists inside and outside Nidaa Tunis, Ennahda in fact has been allocated just one out of 24 ministerial seats. Zied Laadhari, a savvy younger-generation pragmatist inside Ennahda, will abandon his position as spokesman of the party to take up the role of minister of employment. Ennahda has also been given three secretary of state posts (out of a total 15), including spots for Najmeddine Hamrouni, a prominent intellectual inside Ennahda who has taken a more behind-the-scenes party role, and Amel Azzouz, a former Constituent Assembly MP who has advocated against environmental degradation in her home governorate of Gabes. Critics of Ennahda’s involvement in government are particularly lambasting Azzouz, whose degree in English language and literature doesn’t begin to qualify her, they argue, for her new post as secretary of state for international cooperation.
With just one ministerial seat and three secretarial posts, Ennahda’s participation will be mainly symbolic. This symbolic inclusivity, however, is highly important to Ennahda’s leadership and base, which have feared a return to the exclusionary crackdown of the Ben Ali years, particularly in light of the regional crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood following Egypt’s July 3, 2013 ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi. Noting that Essebsi refers to that event as Egypt’s “second revolution” rather than a coup, and citing what Ennahda leaders perceive as exclusionary and even eradicationist discourse against Islamists by Nidaa Tunis leaders since 2011, even minimal inclusion comes as a welcome step toward dialogue and pluralism for many in the party.
Ennahda’s base had been highly skeptical of going into coalition with Nidaa Tunis, a party it sees as a front for an old regime comeback. Many wondered why Ennahda should shoulder the blame for another five years of governance, which will almost surely be wracked by many of the same economic and security-related challenges that plagued Ennahda’s former stint in power. However, regional and local-level supporters seem more positive about the prospect of coalition now following the Shura council’s vote against the first iteration of Essid’s government. Prominent appointments in that government, including the Nidaa Tunis member Laarousi Mizouri and Khadija Cherif, former president of a prominent feminist organization, Les Femmes Democrates (ministers of religious affairs and women and families, respectively) were seen by Ennahda’s base as radical left-wing culture warriors whose opposition to wearing of the hijab, in particular, would directly antagonize Islamists and other religiously conservative Tunisians. The fact that last week’s negotiations, however, replaced these figures with less controversial picks and included posts for Ennahda and Afek Tunis, makes the Essid 2.0 government appear like more of a win to Ennahda’s base, which sees the principled opposition vote of its Shura council as a key reason the government was renegotiated.
The biggest winner of last week’s renegotiations for governmental positions, however, is likely Afek Tunis. A small, well-organized secular party known for supporting foreign direct investment and taking comparatively pragmatic, centrist positions on cultural issues, Afek Tunis was elected to parliament in October with just eight seats. Last week’s negotiations, however, resulted in three ministerial appointments for Afek members – the same number as UPL, which has 16 seats in parliament. Yassine Brahim, a former software engineer and leading figure in Afek Tunis, was appointed as minister of development, investment, and international cooperation – an important post that had been given to UPL’s Vice President Nejib Derouich in Essid’s first proposed government. UPL, led by a prominent soccer club tycoon named Slim Riahi, has been widely rumored to have shopped its parliamentary votes to multiple parties in return for monthly loyalty payments to its MPs. The fact that the ministry of investment, which was a prime location for corruption and bribe-taking under Ben Ali, has been entrusted to Brahim, a politician with a reputation that favors ministerial reform and transparency, is thus reassuring.
Despite forging a wide coalition, this new government – if it passes – will be faced with a host of important challenges regarding state security, economic policy and ministerial reform. Functional cooperation on core issues of economics and security is likely between the parties, but could be stymied by opposition from UGTT. Jebha Chaabia, the party traditionally closest to the powerful trade union, strongly opposes this government based on its inclusion of Ennahda and has demanded that the government freeze price subsidies and undertake a reconsideration of Tunisia’s debt. How the new government balances internationally encouraged liberalizing reforms with the competing demands of UGTT and UTICA will be a key issue to watch. Critics have already accused the first Essid government of being the “most neoliberal in Tunisia’s history.” The second Essid government doesn’t differ much from the first regarding economic policy, so the structure of reforms and popular pushback will likely be a critical question.
The appointment of Najem Gharsalli as minister of interior represents another potential problem. Gharsalli, a former judge under Ben Ali who has been accused of deep corruption by two prominent civil society figures – Kalthoum Kennou of the Association of Judges, and Ahmed Rahmouni of the Tunisian Observatory for Judicial Independence – retained his post as minister of the interior through both governmental negotiations. Ennahda has not seemed to object to his appointment for reasons the party has not yet made clear. If the allegations of Gharsalli’s corruption are true, and if he carries that corruption forward into the Interior Ministry, his presence could seriously thwart much-needed security sector reform.
Overall, however, this coalition represents an important step toward inclusivity and stability at a fragile moment for Tunisia’s transition. It also represents a watershed moment in political learning for Tunisia’s newly elected Nidaa Tunis party, which – unlike Ettakatol and CPR before it – was not socialized into negotiations with Ennahda as part of an oppositional anti-Ben Ali front. Essebsi’s appointment of Lazhar Karoui Chebbi as his official representative in government triggered a backlash among formerly uncritical supporters of Essebsi, some of whom began mocking the 88 year-old president’s age publicly on social media, calling Karoui the “Minister of the Wheelchair” and angrily denouncing Essebsi and Nidaa leaders as “traitors” to their supporters for going into coalition with Ennahda. This de-mytholigization of Essebsi as a charismatic figure could promote healthy, more even-handed criticism of his decisions, and itself represents an important moment in the process of Tunisia’s collective political learning as parties new to government make tough strategic compromises upon ascending to power.
*Correction: The post incorrectly had the number of seats listed as 113, and 114 if NSF were included.
Monica Marks is a visiting fellow at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Democracy, Toleration and Religion and a doctoral fellow with the WAFAW program in Aix-en-Provence, France. She is a doctoral candidate at St Antony’s College, Oxford.