Domestic power struggle in Tunisia

A faltering democracy

The most promising democratic experiment in the Arab world can still avert political disaster, but Tunisia urgently needs outside help in view of the ongoing trench warfare within the government, writes Youssef Cherif in his essay

When anti-government protests swept across the Arab world in 2011, Tunisia seemed poised to emerge better off. Yet, by 2013, the democratic process was almost derailed by unfulfilled economic promises, political and ideological disagreements and foreign meddling. Fortunately, local and international mediation then helped to avert catastrophe and pave the way for elections.

But less than a year before the next general election, scheduled for late 2019, the country is again in crisis. This time, however, mediators are either disinterested in solutions or part of the problem.

In a world focused on the war in Syria, instability in Libya, Russian assertiveness, European uncertainty and the tweets of an isolationist American president, Tunisia has faded from the headlines. Tunisiaʹs democratic breakdown would, one assumes, attract international attention; but by then, it will be too late.

Political trench warfare

The current stalemate began soon after the December 2014 presidential election. In February 2015, President Beji Caid Essebsi, founder of the secular political party Nidaa Tounes, struck a deal with Rached Ghannouchi, president of the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party, to form a coalition government. But soon after, Nidaa Tounes was beset by infighting and, in January 2016, dozens of the partyʹs MPs resigned in protest, giving Ennahda a parliamentary majority.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, Essebsiʹs protege and appointee, has been challenging the 92-year-old presidentʹs inner circle, throwing Nidaa Tounes further into chaos. By mid-2018, as the partyʹs turmoil peaked, Ghannouchi was supporting Chahed rather than the presidentʹs son and groomed heir, Hafedh Caid Essebsi. The president, reacting either to a sense of betrayal or out of fear for his legacy, responded by renewing his criticism of Ennahda and by launching an investigation into allegations that Ghannouchiʹs party is tied to terrorism.

Tunisiaʹs Prime Minister Youssef Chahed (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
From former companion and ally to political adversary: in the meantime Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, protected and appointed by Essebsi, has challenged the 92-year-old president's inner circle and thrown Nidaa Tounes even deeper into chaos, says Youssef Cherif

Moreover, Essebsi and his clan embraced populist rhetoric and restarted courting the anti-Islamist Saudi-Emirati-Egyptian axis. Essebsi even endorsed a law to give men and women equal inheritance rights, a measure that is supported by many secular Tunisians and praised by the international community, but loathed by Ennahdaʹs conservative base.

Ongoing rumours of revolt

Amid this brewing political turmoil, rumours of coups and attempted coups have intensified. In June 2018, Tunisiaʹs interior minister was fired over an alleged coup attempt. In November, Nidaa Tounesʹ secretary-general accused Chahed of planning his own putsch. In December, Qatari-backed news outlets warned of a Saudi-Emirati plot to stage a coup in Tunisia. And every now and then, Tunisian social media buzzes with unfounded rumours of army movements. It seems as if trial balloons are being floated.

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