By Geoff Moore
Many have congratulated Tunisia lately, deservedly so. The ‘quartet’ of civil society groups which recently won the Nobel Peace Prize has worked to move Tunisia through its transitional period following the Arab Spring and the removal of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Tunisia is widely seen as the sole success story of the Arab Spring, and has held free elections for its Constituent Assembly in 2011 and for the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP) in 2014. The Constituent Assembly was created to draft the new constitution, and the Islamist Ennahda party won the largest number of seats. In 2014, the Nidaa Tounes party took a plurality of votes in the ARP and Beji Caid Essebsi, founder of Nidaa Tounes, won the presidency.
Despite the successes of civil society groups and the initiation of the Truth and Dignity Commission, Tunisia is still very fragile. Two terrorist attacks in 2015 have dramatically decreased economically essential tourism, and smuggling of goods and weapons still occurs on the desert borders with Libya. Imminently, the ruling party seems to be on the verge of collapse. The three issues of economic growth, border control, and political stability may have more in common than most observers and analysts have elaborated. When viewed together, these three issues paint a larger picture which threaten the legitimacy of the government and challenge the success of the revolution. Ironically, the threat does not come from the mere existence of these problems, but from the leadership of Nidaa Tounes.
Two separate, though related, economic measures are currently in the works in Tunisia. The first, a new law to be introduced early next year, is aimed at incentivizing foreign investment. Minister of Development, Investment and International Cooperation, Yassine Brahim, told Reuters that he wants to reduce administrative and bureaucratic barriers to foreign direct investment. The Minister is looking at an investment target of $1.4 billion in 2016, and $2.5 billion by 2020. Interestingly, this planned increase in foreign investment will coexist with pay raises for 800,000 public employees. The government frames these as “essential to calm tensions and stop strikes.” The question however will be whether the Tunisian public sees this as an attempt to buy off workers who might see the foreign investment law as a way to attract businesses which will send profits out of Tunisia.
The second measure is a highly controversial economic reconciliation law proposed by President Essebsi. The proposed law is gaining international attention, with articles recently in the New York Times and Al Jazeera. The justification for this law is the same as the foreign investment law: to jumpstart the economy. Yet, unlike the foreign investment law and the truth commission, the economic reconciliation law would grant a general amnesty to “corrupt officials and businesspeople with ties to the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.” This is contrary to the mission of the transitional justice law which emphasizes accountability for human rights violations as well as economic and financial crimes. It seems therefore that an amnesty for the purpose of economic growth is favored by the government over the investigation of abuses.
The difference between the initiation of the economic measures and the transitional justice law is striking. Whereas the truth commission was established following recommendations from, and consultation with Tunisian civil society, the economic measures have originated from the top of the government. In fact, as emphasized by Foreign Policy, the draft law on economic reconciliation was proposed during the state of emergency this year when public protests were banned. It is no surprise then that the head of the truth commission is concerned that the draft law will negate “her ability to investigate the system of corruption and cronyism that was at the base of Tunisia’s dictatorships.” The new economic measures represent a clear move towards economic consolidation rather than reconciliation.
While the leadership attempts to attract foreign investment, it is simultaneously trying to block cross-border smuggling. This problem has been acute on the desert border with Libya which has been difficult to control since 2011. This year, construction began on a 140 mile wall on the border intended to stop smuggling of weapons and the free movement of terrorists. Yet, as Vice News has reported, the majority of items smuggled across the border are cheap products which end up in the souks. Poor Tunisians in the south of the country will lose access to these more affordable products at the same time that foreign companies gain entry to the Tunisian market. Noting the fact that there are other ways into the country, the same article refers to the wall as a “Band-Aid solution” to the problem of terrorism.
The great irony of the wall is that it exposes the government’s lip-service to southern residents. The new economic measures are in part justified by the need to bring the south up to the quality of life enjoyed by the economically stronger north of the country. Yet, the new wall is not only a half-measure against terrorism, it is also expensive. It will reportedly cost over $80 million, with the government only promising a meager $5 million. The rest is being requested from Europe. If Tunisia cannot gather the foreign money for this project, it will further indebt the struggling country, and likely leave those in the southern desert in a worse situation. It remains to be seen if a wall can be effective against smuggling and terrorism, but it would seem that another attack inside Tunisia might cause serious damage to the ruling class while making the wall look like a wasteful distraction.
On November 1st, a meeting of the executive board of Nidaa Tounes at a hotel in Hammamet turned into a brawl. The Independent and the Middle East Eye described “young men armed with wooden clubs,” who prevented certain members of the party from entering. Party deputies were invited to the meeting by President Essebsi. Yet, the party’s Secretary General and leader of a potential breakaway faction, Mohsen Marzouk, claims that Essebsi’s son Hafedh was responsible for the violence. While the incident itself is disturbing, the consequences could prove very serious for Tunisia’s trajectory. Up to 35 Nidaa Tounes members may break away from Essebsi’s faction to create a new party. If this occurs, Ennahda will become the largest party in the ARP, and Essebsi will lose his party’s control of the parliament, making a coalition ever more important.
If Marzouk’s accusations are correct, and the incident in Hammamet was instigated by Hafedh Essebsi, a few questions need to be asked. The most obvious is why would President Essebsi bother organizing a party leadership meeting if he planned to block certain members from entering the hotel? If the president had nothing to do with the incident, does it suggest that he does not coordinate politically with his son, or rather that Hafedh acted on his own ambitions? If the latter is true, Nidaa Tounes’ ability to control the son of the 88 year-old president will be vital. Does the violence suggest opportunism and a lack of long-term political strategizing? Another theory is that the Essebsis wanted to initiate a party split in order to build an alliance between their wing of the party and Ennahda. This theory suggests a longer term strategy, albeit a controversial one, of consolidating Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda. It is hard to accept the proposition that this was simply random opportunism or the work of “militias that are alien to the party aims,” as claimed by Marzouk’s faction. What is equally hard to believe is the accusation that Marzouk is the cause of party divisions due to his presidential ambitions. If he leads the new party, it would only be the third largest party in the ARP.
The whispers of the death of Nidaa Tounes may be premature, but Salah Al-Din Al-Jorashi of the Middle East Monitor may be correct in saying that the party has lost its moral legitimacy. Considering the political drama and controversial decisions about the wall and the economy, Nidaa Tounes appears to be slowly drowning. This has largely been initiated by the party itself, at the expense of regular Tunisians. It will take political will and compromise to sort out the current problems, but it may already be too late for the governing party to coalesce.