Tunisia, The Courage of Compromise

This week, the Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda’s stamp of approval will allow the young democracy’s first post-transition government to achieve a majority in parliament. The party’s eagerness to seek consensus and participate in a government with its rivals has been praised for avoiding the militancy of other Islamist parties in the region. In the short term, however, the larger secularist party Nida Tounes claims to be making the greater political compromise.

Nearly all of Nida Tounes’s key ministers and parliamentary leaders have loudly objected to any coalition with Ennahda. Their arguments are definitive: Ennahda lost the election; it is a religious movement meddling in politics; and it ruined the economy during its transitional rule from 2011-2014. Nida Tounes’s regional leadership and 70 of its 89 parliamentary deputies oppose an alliance, and small protests have been staged outside the party’s headquarters.

Whether Nida Tounes’s surprising decision to nonetheless extend a conciliatory hand to Ennahda is a gesture of optimism or opportunism lies in the eye of the beholder. Is it an attempt to fashion a new political culture that transcends the old model of exclusion? Or is it just the parliamentary arithmetic of Ennahda’s 69 votes that makes the medicine go down, especially coming in exchange for relatively small concessions?

In a recent interview in Carthage, Nida Tounes leader Mondher Belhadj Ali argued that the central cleavage in Tunisian politics isn’t Nida-Nahda. “We can even have excellent relations with them – they’re not going to wind up in prison under our rule,” he said. “The country’s true enemies are poverty, illiteracy, and economic underdevelopment.” Such views reflect a new tolerance for Ennahda as a political opponent, albeit one that belongs in the opposition bank far from the levers of power.

That is why this week’s symbolic concession to welcome Ennahda as a legitimate and democratic partner is especially meaningful. In the event, the historic milestone is of greater value than actual power shared: the Islamists are barred from the government’s inner political circle. Nonetheless, this will not be a silent partnership. Ennahda is a formal coalition member with 4 portfolios in the 32-member cabinet. The party’s 39-year old spokesman Zied Laadhari, partly educated in France and the US, was named Minister of Employment and it has also been given three deputy ministries (finance, international development and health care establishments).

This inclusion is the latest signal that Nida Tounes will not covet all executive power despite having won both parliamentary and presidential elections. The party chose the technocrat Habib Essid to be Prime Minister, for example, and also appointed nonpartisan ministers of Justice and Defense. This reflects nostalgia for the early Bourguiba years as a golden era when Tunisian democracy was closer to French-style semi-Presidentialism than the Middle Eastern autocracy it later became. In the ideal arrangement, a directly elected President who enjoys a parliamentary majority – such as Habib Bourguiba or Charles de Gaulle – serenely guides both affairs of state and government.

The ambition to secure stability for the Tunisian state is the party’s best excuse for recycling personalities from the former regime. Nida Tounes needs no revolutionary purge, the logic goes, because only the older generation that knew Bourguiba has the prestige and experience to seal the transition to democracy under strong Presidential leadership. The eminent legal scholar and revolutionary leader Yadh Ben Achour said in a meeting organized by Reset DOC in Tunis last week that one of the country’s saving graces has been precisely its avoidance of Robespierrian impulses. Tunisia is a living paradox, Ben Achour said, because the revolution is being enacted by card-carrying members of the ancien regime.

That is how individuals who served under Bourguiba (1957-1987) can be proudly embraced, starting with the popularly elected 89-year old President Béji Caïd Essebsi himself – a four-time minister and personal advisor to the founding father of modern Tunisia. The new deputy minister of national security earlier served as chief of the Presidential Guard for both Bourguiba and Ben Ali. The old loyalists take the same vow alongside Ennahda’s four cabinet members to uphold the Tunisian constitution in their joint governance of the nation’s affairs.

When Morocco and Algeria censored a January issue of the French weekly Canard Enchaîné containing prophet cartoons, Tunisian authorities kept it available in the country’s newsstands. The Tunisian reputation for upholding democratic freedoms, however, sits uncomfortably with another of its regional distinctions. Despite its small population, Tunisia has sent the largest contingent of any country – 3,000 fighters – to join Islamic extremists in Syria and Iraq. And it is the country of the ISIS member who detonated a car bomb in an attack on a Libyan hotel that killed nine people on January 27. In light of this, the unity government is designed to hold together the republican front of Tunisians who swear by the rule of law and to keep at bay the twin national demons of militant Islamism and overzealous anti-Islamism.

As the democratic transition now turns into everyday coalition politics, there are indications of religious challenges to come. In particular, control over the country’s mosques, imams and broadcasting airwaves will be hotly contested. In late January, the ministry of religious affairs replaced the imam of the historic Zeytouna mosque that had escaped government control – with Ennahda’s complicity – for nearly three years. The government reaffirmed ministerial authority over all mosques and threatened “legal measures against anyone who challenges its administrative decisions.”

Ennahda is being asked to absorb other reminders of pre-revolutionary days that are being put in place to reassure its secularist allies. The new Religious Affairs minister is a former Chief Mufti whom Ennahda removed and replaced in 2013. He was first appointed by former President Ben Ali in 2008 and became known for his activism against the phenomena of foreign fighters and foreign fatwas, and for his support of state-funded religious television.

Relatedly, one of the last acts of the independent audiovisual regulator overseeing Tunisia’s transition to democracy was to shut down three radio stations and five television channels at the end of January – including MFM Radio and Zitouna TV, which have served as outlets for Ennahda leaders’ political declarations. Ennahda and the national union of media managers have called this a dangerous attack on the press freedoms guaranteed by the revolution.

Now that it is part of the state apparatus, Ennahda’s options for criticism of such policies are curtailed. The same is true for the fervently anti-Islamist bloc within Nida Tounes that has been presented with the fait accompli of a forced marriage to Ennahda. So long as such indignities that come with historic compromise are distributed evenly, Tunisia’s consensual approach to defusing a polarized society will remain the envy of North Africa – and remain the sum of circumstances that may be difficult to reproduce elsewhere.

This piece was originally published at Reset’s Dialogues on Civilization.