Arab Spring cradle shows compromise is possible

Secularists and Islamists in Tunisia have reached a political agreement

Compromise has been in short supply since Tunisia sparked the Arab Spring more than two years ago. This small North African nation has once again broken new ground with a political deal between long-time enemies among the Islamists and the secular old guard.

The deal, announced over the weekend, aims to put in place an independent caretaker government until new elections next year, marking the first time Islamists have agreed in the face of rising public anger to step back from power gained at the ballot box.

Tunisia had been careering toward chaos and political paralysis after two assassinations this year and an inability to finalise a new constitution, and it remains fragile and divided. Months of laborious back-room haggling led by two political leaders helped, at least for now, to avoid the kind of zero-sum politics that have come to define the post-Arab Spring tumult in Egypt, Libya and the battlefield of Syria.

Clashing visions
Former prime minister Beji Caid Essebsi (86), who leads a new secular-minded political party, Nidaa Tounes, and Rachid Ghannouchi (76), the leader of the Islamist party Ennahda, have starkly different visions of the future. Since Tunisia's political crisis flared this year, the two men have met at least five or six times to find a political solution.


It has not been easy for either side and, in an indication of just how deep the divisions remain, the two could still not agree on a candidate to serve as interim prime minister.

When the deal was announced last Saturday, between Ennahda and about half of the liberal parties in the opposition, Mehdi Jomaa (50), the industry minister, was tapped as interim prime minister. Essebsi though did not sign on and could block cabinet choices.

Still, Ennahda was motivated to find a deal that would allow it to move forward with the framework the two men had worked out. Looking over its shoulder at the fall of president Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, and the crackdown on members of his Muslim Brotherhood that followed, the party was fearful of the same fate.

Yet it refused to be hustled from power, insisting it complete its mandate to draft a constitution and electoral law, and the change of power should occur via elections.

Invitation to talk
In a heated atmosphere, Essebsi threw down the gauntlet in a television interview and called on Ghannouchi to meet him. "I said: 'You are responsible for that" – meaning the crisis that had beset the country – " 'you have to be part of the solution, I invite you to do so'."

Doing so was not easy and it may yet cost each man politically. Their history is long, tangled and contentious.

Ghannouchi was imprisoned twice while Essebsi served as foreign minister during the dictatorship, forcing him into 22 years in exile in England. Educated at universities in Tunisia, Cairo and Damascus, Ghannouchi founded the Islamic Tendency Movement in 1981. He returned to Tunisia only after the fall of dictator Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali in 2011.

Essebsi, on the other hand, represents the old political class. Born in 1926 into a prominent family, he trained as a lawyer when Tunisia was a French colony. He served as interior, defence and foreign minister after Tunisian independence in 1956. He also held posts as ambassador to France and Germany.

He left public service in 1994, during the dictatorship, and was considered sufficiently untainted to run the transitional administration for a year after the 2011 uprising.

It was Essebsi’s even hand as transitional prime minister, overseeing Tunisia’s first democratic multiparty elections, that allowed the Islamists under Ennahda to sweep to power in October 2011. Yet within 18 months, Essebsi began railing against what he saw as Ennahda’s incompetence at governing and its laxity toward the incipient terrorism inside Tunisia. He then formed his party, Nidaa Tounes, which has won the support of a broad section of the traditional political elite.

Assassins and terrorists
Although poles apart, the men came together after two political assassinations and mounting Islamic terrorism threatened to roll back Tunisia's tentative democratic progress. The assassination of the Popular Front leader, Mohammed Brahmi, on July 25th, swelled anger against the Islamists into political crisis. Opposition parties demonstrated for months outside the parliament building, calling for the government's resignation; politicians withdrew from the National Constituent Assembly, forcing its suspension.

After Essebsi’s initial invitation to a dialogue, it took Ghannouchi 10 or 12 days to respond, but finally he agreed to meet. Ghannouchi is more circumspect about his meetings with Essebsi. His comment after the first meeting was that Essebsi was set on becoming president. Labour union leaders, who have mediated rounds of cross-party talks since, have been equally important in plotting a way forward, Ghannouchi said.

Yet the image of the two doyens of Tunisian politics sitting together eased the tension. Ghannouchi agreed to drop the age limit of 75 for holders of political office in the constitution, which cleared the way for Essebsi to run for president. Ennahda also withdrew a draft law to prevent former members of the Ben Ali government from holding office.

Caretaker government
Essebsi maintains he threw the Islamists a lifeline by persuading them to relinquish power in favour of an independent caretaker government backed by all parties.

The step, he insists, ensured the Islamists will have a permanent place in Tunisian politics. Essebsi was criticised by members of the opposition who mistrust the Islamist vision for a religious state; he says he found support among those who feared civil strife.

Ghannouchi also met resistance within his own party. Some warned of a coup. The party’s general council eventually backed the national dialogue, although concerns remain. On a national level, the talks have been popular.

Despite what he perceives as waning international support for the democratic experiment in the Arab world, Ghannouchi remains optimistic.

“We still believe that Tunisia will succeed in establishing the first democratic model that brings together Islam and modernity in the region,” he said.

"This small country can provide this large benefit to the world."
– (New York Times service)