The death of Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi came as a sudden and unfortunate event.
Although Tunisia has a solid constitutional regime, so his death will not create a constitutional vacuum, Essebsi’s absence will be felt at the level of national political leadership. Elections are supposed to be due in a few months, but will Tunisia witness political instability or tension due to the death of its president? There are some points that must be considered in order to answer this question.
First of all, the context of Essebsi’s presidency must be understood. Essebsi came to office at a critical time and a transitional phase in the history of Tunisia. Political uncertainty was the main challenge that faced him as soon as he assumed his responsibilities.
Moreover, there were challenges like radicalisation, terrorism, Tunisians joining the Islamic State group and economic hardships that topped the agenda. It could be fairly said that Essebsi’s main target was the stability of the Tunisian state, which he managed to accomplish on a national platform and not a politicised one.
The second point is domestic politics in Tunisia. There are three main streams within Tunisian politics: nationalist, Islamist and secular. None those streams were able to produce a charismatic political leadership over the past few years — one that could mobilise the Tunisian street, which is highly aware in terms of politics. In addition, Tunisian civil society is quite powerful, and is always significant within the political leadership equation.
There is a possible scenario that a process of rebuilding alliances will be witnessed in Tunisia. Both political forces and civil society organisations are expected to go into a phase of new alliances in the coming period. This does not necessarily mean that Tunisia will see the rise of new political entities, but it means that the various political streams will engage in a new process of negotiation.
Among the questions that are posed at the current moment is the future role of the Islamist stream within Tunisia, specifically Al-Nahda Party, which is the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood movement.
Here we have to notice the pattern of political activism that the Muslim Brotherhood uses in post-transition times. Throughout the Arab world, and since 2011 in the Arab Spring, the Muslim Brotherhood has been practising some sort of opportunism in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and other places. The problem with the Muslim Brotherhood as an organisation, or as representation of the Islamist stream, is dual faced.
On the one hand, the state of political tension makes the radicalisation in the Muslim Brotherhood more obvious, and makes it in turn create a phase of political polarisation within society. On the other hand, through several tools, the Muslim Brotherhood manages to manipulate the political majority within society to dominate the scene in a non-representative manner. Such practices have been witnessed in more than one Arab country in the post-Arab Spring phase.
The ascent and the activity of the Islamist stream makes us pay attention to the question that concerns the extent of future influence for the Islamic stream within the Tunisian inside.
The expected return of Al-Nahda Party poses the question of whether Tunisia will transform into a country lead by an Islamist stream. The idea of a contentious scene and the fact that Tunisia has a powerful civil society and a high rate of political awareness would tend to block such an outcome.
Political experience in the Arab world over the past few years has proven that the actions of the Muslim Brotherhood were quite harmful, and the political promises made were never fulfilled. In a country with a population that is politically aware, such mistakes are rarely repeated. Hence, it is very likely that Tunisia exhibits a new model in the era of political tension that the Arab world is currently witnessing with the Islamist stream.
The larger perspective in North Africa also needs to be taken into consideration. Today we are witnessing political conflicts in Tunisia, Libya and Algeria. We are also in expectation of new political processes of settlement in the three countries. Egypt indeed is a very different case due to its robust state structures, and the political will towards stabilisation that has been evident since 30 June 2013. These simultaneous changes can create a new political trajectory in North Africa.
Those new paths will lead to the materialisation of new political regimes within the region, as a result of political tensions. The outcome could be generated through military action, like the Libyan case, or political negotiations, like the Tunisian case, or mass mobilisation, like the Algerian case.
All these different processes will result in a new political phase in North Africa through a set of new regimes that emerged through social and political tension. Other states in the region will have to face the challenge of coping with those new regimes and maintaining regional security in North Africa — a task that Egypt will play an integral part in.
Finally, Tunisia is likely to face a period where it will be unstable, but the state structures present will help keep the negative effects at bay. Nonetheless, neighbouring countries in North Africa could be very useful at the current moment.
Essebsi was indeed concerned with the Tunisian state and its stability, and that stability will indeed endure.
*The writer is a senior political analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Tunisia in transition