“Perhaps some people want chaos.” This blunt statement was made by the then Tunisian PM, Hamadi Jebali, in an interview with French TV France 24, on 13 February. He was talking about the murder of leftist opposition politician, Chokri Belaid, shot dead in a Tunis neighbourhood a week before, and of its aftermath. Jebali’s words did not, however, make it completely clear whom he was speaking about.
Many argued that he was not blaming opponents, but pointing his finger at his own party: Ennahda, the Tunisian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Actually, Belaid’s fellows and relatives blamed a reportedly Ennahda-linked militia (the League for the Protection of the Revolution) for the murder. Jebali, unlike many of his party fellows, had already distanced himself from it in the past.
Jebali’s views proved to differ from those of Rachid Ghannouci (Ennahda’s founder and mastermind) on another key issue: how to deal with the political crisis following Belaid’s death. While Ghannouci – in order to leave the power balance unchanged – appealed to the people (which gave the Islamic party a relative majority in the 2011 elections for the constituent assembly), Jebali tried to form a technocrat government, eventually resigning after his attempt failed: the former interior minister Ali Laryedh - also from Ennahda - was named as the new PM. In the meanwhile, tens of thousands of both pro- and anti-Ennahda protesters took to the streets.
In addition, the Islamist party was already facing Salafist movements; they seem to be on the rise, even if so far they played a relatively small role compared to that of similar groups in Egypt. Nevertheless, secular politicians are afraid that these hard-line Muslims will in the end push Ennahda (or at least a part of it) to abide to their positions on Sharia and its role in the Constitution to be. Even before the Belaid murder, the Constituent assembly was in a stalemate.
When confronting Salafists, the Tunisian Muslim Brotherhood (like the analogous Egyptian wing) indeed faces a dramatic dilemma: heeding their requests could alienate Ennahda’s secular allies in the government (Ettakatol, a member of the Socialist International, and the centre-left Congress for the Republic, led by Moncef Marzouki, the current Tunisian head of State). On the other hand, a more moderate stance on religious matters could cost Ennahda a share of its supporters, who would turn to the Salafists.
The Muslim Brotherhood-inspired movement has rivals also among secular parties: three of them (Nida Tounes, Al Masar, and Al Joumhouri) recently formed an alliance. This could strip the ruling ‘troika’ of its majority in the next elections: both the presidential and the parliamentary vote are scheduled for June 2013.
In such a complex situation, some voices also denounced a foreign plot aimed at subverting the Tunisian revolution. Jebali himself asked the French ambassador for clarifications after Manuel Valls, the Interior minister in Paris, called for support for the “democratic opposition” in the North African country and spoke about “rising Islamic fascism.”
Some other Tunisians see Ennahda itself as a puppet for the French government, widely considered a de facto ally of the former Ben Ali regime. The ‘French concern’ was downplayed by journalist Faiek Henablia, on the Kapitalis news site. “Nobody needs to plot against Tunisians – he wrote in an ironic article – because they can do it by themselves, without anybody else’s help.” In fact, a possible conspiracy seems to be a problem more to politicians than to common people, apparently more worried about economics.
Signals are not good: because of political instability, Standard and Poor’s downgraded Tunisian sovereign debt – assuming that investing in the country is riskier nowadays. The government asked the International Monetary Fund for a $ 1.78 billion loan to secure the economy from “external shocks.” Also from a more down-to-earth point of view, the situation has worsened in the last two years; the unemployment rate, according to the World Bank, will stay at around 18 percent in 2013; this may harm the ruling parties’ hopes of retaining power.
The youths’ attitude matters from this point of view, too: they are the category most hit by the country’s poor performances, and they were the core of the street demonstration that forced the old ruler to leave. Yet, as African Argument’s Richard Dowden pointed out some months ago “only about 25 percent of the 18 to 25 year-olds voted” in the 2011 elections; this may prove to be another destabilizing factor in the future.
Economic and social problems are not the only affinity between Tunisia and the other North African countries that underwent a regime change in 2011, Egypt and Libya. All three – to different extents – are dealing with internal divisions, alleged risks of a rise of radical Islamists, and an institutional framework in the making. As Hamadi Jebali himself acknowledged a few days before resigning, Tunisians (like Egyptians and Libyans) are “practicing, and learning democracy.”
Difficulties are not unusual in such a situation, nevertheless they are worrying. Many experts hoped that the relatively peaceful outcome of the ‘Jasmine revolution’ in Tunis could have positive indirect effects in Cairo and Tripoli, but the contagion has apparently gone the other way round.