Over the last 12 months Tunisia has dragged itself out of a political crisis many thought it would not escape.

After a seemingly unbreakable deadlock through the summer of 2013, a deal was signed by all of Tunisia’s 21 political parties in October, setting a strict timeline for resolving the crisis.

On 9 January 2014 the Islamist-led government stood down and on 27 January the Tunisian Constituent Assembly voted through the country’s post-revolutionary constitution, which it followed by passing a sweeping electoral law on 2 May.

Parliamentary elections are now set to take place in October followed by presidential elections in November, putting Tunisia firmly on course to become the first country of the Arab nations that saw revolution in 2011 to implement a stable, constitutionally backed government.

Eying elections

Moderate Islamist party Ennahda, winner of the 2011 election, is set to do well at the polls again, as is Nidaa Tunis, a secular party that includes several officials from the exiled former leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s era.

Opinion polls carried out over recent months suggest the two parties are likely to dominate the elections with some giving them a combined 80 per cent of the vote, but neither party is likely to achieve a big enough majority to win outright.

Opinion poll for parliamentary elections
Parties Share of vote (%)
Ennahda 14
Ettakatol 4.7
FP 3.9
PR 2.9
Nidaa Tunis 17.1
Source: Emrhod Consulting

Behind the scenes, back-room bargaining has already begun and both parties have shown some degree of willingness to form a coalition with the other – something most analysts believe would lead to the most stable election outcome.

Ennahda has been the most outspoken in calling for a national unity government, following a slight decline in support after winning the 2011 election.

Calling for consensus

Ennahda leader, Rashed Ghannouchi, writing in newspaper the Middle East Monitor on 12 June, highlighted concessions his own party has already made and called for Tunisia’s other political parties to prepare to work together to form a broad coalition government.

“We have reiterated our deep conviction that it is not possible for one party to govern Tunisia in the upcoming phase. Our country needs a national unity government… to help overcome the difficult challenges that we face,” he said.

Ghannouchi wants his party to back an independent “consensus” candidate in the presidential elections, rather than fielding one of its own members. He has talked of Mehdi Jomaa, the popular caretaker prime minister, as a possible candidate.

Nidaa Tunis is yet to get behind the idea, but could well change its mind depending on the result of the parliamentary election in October. At the moment, it has signalled its intention to field Beji Caid Sebsi, the party’s founder and a former high-ranking official under Ben Ali.

During the hundreds of hours of meetings that took place in the latter half of 2013 Tunisia’s political elite have proved themselves handy negotiators and shown a commitment to democracy along with an aversion to violence that should help the country navigate the election period without disaster.

Agreeing to disagree

Speaking to the Turkish news agency Anadolu in June Tunisian diplomat Faysal Gouia said, “a culture of dialogue has allowed Tunisia to climb the mountain of revolution without falling.”

This idea of a distinctly Tunisian commitment to consensus has been championed by both secular and Islamist politicians since the signing of the constitution and the high value placed on both compromise and stability is likely to benefit the country in the long term.

Another factor that should help keep the political transition on track is the 700,000-strong labour union, the Union Generale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT).

It was nominated for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for its role in resolving the political crisis, after it teamed up with three other civil society groups to mediate negotiations and drive through the national dialogue initiative – and is likely to serve as a mediator in any post-election bargaining.

European influence

Europe too will have influence over decisions Tunisia’s politicians make in coming months. In 2012, 63 per cent of Tunisia’s trade was with the EU and the bloc has a vested interest in seeing Tunisia successfully avoid descending into post-revolutionary violent disorder.

“Due to its proximity, Europe had a real interest in a sound political transition. Germany was especially active and worked closely with politicians during the negotiations,” says Bill Lawrence, director of Middle East and North Africa (Mena) programmes at the Centre for the Study of Islam and Democracy, an organisation that carried out 82 workshops with Tunisia’s political leaders in the run-up to the approval of Tunisia’s constitution.

“It’s likely that we’ll see this kind of solid guidance in place once again after election time,” he adds.

Tunisia constituent assembly election results, 2011
Leader Party Seats won Popular vote Percentage
Hamadi Jebali (1st) Ennahda 89 1,501,320 37
Moncef Marzouki (2nd) CPR 29 353,041 8.7
Mohamed Hechmi Hamdi (3rd) Aridha 26 273,362 6.7
Source: Emrhod Consulting

Tunisia is more homogenous than Syria, with a population that is 98 per cent Sunni Muslim. It is less tribal than Libya and has a relatively robust education system, ranking second in the Mena region on the Human Development Index education rankings in 2007. Unlike Egypt, Tunisia’s army is small and apolitical.

All these factors, along with strong international support, should help Tunisia to find stability, but the country also has vulnerabilities that may undermine the democratic process causing the country’s transition to falter at the upcoming elections.

Militants and risk

The assassination of the secular politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, which tipped Tunisia into political deadlock last year, showed just how easily terror attacks can send shockwaves through Tunisia’s political system.

So far, 2014 has not seen terror attacks on the scale of the suicide bombing and assassinations of 2013, but as elections approach the risk of attacks will increase, according to Geoffrey Howard, a Mena analyst at strategic consultancy firm Control Risks.

“There is always potential for more tension and conflict around events like elections, and Tunisia is no different,” he says. “The geographical position, bordering both Libya and Algeria, makes Tunisia very vulnerable to terror attacks.”

Anne Wolf, an analyst at the University of Cambridge, says the jihadi attacks on Tunisian army checkpoints that killed 15 soldiers on 17 July 2014 show that religiously motivated violence remains a key threat to stability in Tunisia.

“Especially during election time, such threats are expected to increase as jihadis view the Nidaa Tunis party as ‘un-Islamic’ and a return of former regime authorities,” she says.

Crackdown backlash

Recent anti-terror operations have included manoeuvres in the Chaambi Mountains, raids on mosques, and the arrest of members of the high-profile jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia. Though there is broad support for the crackdown among Tunisians there are also concerns police raids are heavy handed and unnecessarily provoking violent reactions from religious communities.

On 10 April, a group of salafists stormed a police station in the farming town of Siliana days after security forces raided a local mosque arresting 40 men, some of whom the authorities claimed had recently returned from jihad in Syria.

Amna Guellali, Human Rights Watch’s Tunisia director, says while some of the people being detained in raids of this kind of are radicals, many are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“There are no official figures, but we know that more than a thousand people have been detained. Many are beaten up in detention then released,” says Guellali. “All we have is very sketchy information about why these people are being arrested.”

Anger and inequality

Increasing inequality is also proving to be an ongoing source of unrest. Nearly four years after the revolution, coastal regions continue to benefit from better infrastructure, more wealthy societies and diversified economies, while inland communities wrestle with high poverty rates, lower standards of education and in some cases difficult access to basic needs like water, sanitation, roads and energy.

The perceived neglect of the poor by politicians while officials and families that prospered under Ben Ali continue to move in political circles is fermenting disillusionment in some sectors of society according to Maha Yahya, a senior associate at Lebanon-based think-tank Carnegie Middle East Centre.

“Now that the dust has settled, these people are looking at who has the power and who is negotiating with who. For many, it’s the same faces in different places. The same political elite. There hasn’t been any change on the social and economic front,” she says.

This anger about the plight of poor communities and unemployment in the interior has been a driving force behind many of the frequent strikes that have regularly shuttered factories and paralysed towns throughout 2014.

Reading the riots

Economic riots in January showed how unrest that starts in Tunisia’s poorer regions can quickly spread to the capital. The protests saw one man killed as demonstrators clashed with police while shops were looted and torched.

Frequent strikes and riots should serve as a warning to politicians, says Richard Cochrane, a Mena country risk analyst at US-based consultancy IHS Economics & Country Risk. He says the industrial action is unlikely to morph into a second uprising, but it is doing significant damage to the economy and signals that political parties need to pay more than just lip service to the communities in Tunisia’s industrial heartland.

“Strikes tend to meld into communal protests that lead to prolonged shutdowns,” he says. “This trend has had a major effect and I fully expect these strikes to carry on as various groups look get heard. It’s going to be a pretty dynamic, rocky environment. Debates will be contentious and the issues connected to the Islamist-secularist divide at the heart of the political crisis last year are going to crop up again, but it’s unlikely to be as bad as it was in 2013.”

Most of the heavy lifting is now done, but challenges remain and more concessions from political players will be needed to stop the gains that have been made slipping away.

Key fact

Tunisia’s labour union was nominated for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for its role in resolving the political crisis

Source: MEED