Can the Tunisian national dialogue make a new start?

Nadeen Shaker , Saturday 16 Nov 2013

Political rivalries and disagreement over how the new government should look, and who it should include, have blocked Tunisia's national dialogue, due to resume next week

Protesters shout slogans during a demonstration calling for the departure of the Islamist-led ruling coalition at Kasbah Square where the government headquarters are located, in Tunis 15 November, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

After an outwardly ramshackle national dialogue was held at abeyance 4 November, Tunisian leaders deliberate on how to move ahead with hard-won talks.

More than a week ago, the powerful General Union of Tunisian Labour (UGTT) mediating the talks suspended the national dialogue indefinitely, later announcing its resumption next week.

But with the date drawing near, will Tunisian negotiators learn from past mistakes and resolve months of deadlock? 

Missing the deadline, twice

Under a detailed roadmap, set at the launch of the talks on 25 October, a caretaker prime minister was to be chosen a week after the talks began.

However, failure to agree on one pushed the deadline to Monday, 4 November. The meet began two hours after the noon deadline, soon after which Houcine Abassi, UGTT secretary general, declared the suspension of the dialogue “until there are favourable grounds for talks to succeed.”

Representatives were to choose from between two potential candidates: opposition-backed Mohamed Ennaceur, and Ahmed Mestiri, an 88-year-old seen as the political heir to Ennahda and its allies. Both served under the late Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president and independence leader.

The choosing of a prime minister was necessary following Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda's pledge to stand down at an unspecified date before the commencement of talks.

According to a Tunisia Alive report, opposition leaders, including Hamma Hammami, spokesman of the Tunisian Workers' Communist Party, and Taieb Baccouche of the secular Nidaa Tounes Party, blamed President Moncef Marzouki for falling short on reaching consensus, citing that the president singlehandedly rejected a third prime minister nominee: Abdessalem Zbidi.

The ruling coalition later threw its full support behind its candidate with Ennahda chief Rached Ghannouchi stressing: "We don't see any alternative to Ahmed Mestiri."

“Each political party has been supporting a candidate who would serve their interests,” Tunisian journalist Asma Ghribi told Ahram Online. “Also, there is a severe crisis of trust between the different political parties. Those in government are claiming that the opposition is subverting electoral legitimacy. The opposition is accusing Ennahdha and its allies of attempting to rig the next elections.”

During the numbered weeks since the talks began, the ruling coalition and opposition were to also agree on forming a government of independents, draft a constitution and prepare for elections as part of a roadmap with a tight timetable.

Ennahda's international spokesperson, Yusra Ghannouchi, told Ahram Online that progress had been made on all three fronts, but at a slower pace than was hoped for.

Ghannouchi had informed Ahram Online late July that a full draft constitution had already been completed, its articles made ready for amendment, adoption and a national vote.

Later, nonetheless, tensions arose within the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) over amending the internal procedural rules of the constitution-drafting body meant to speed up the adoption of the constitution. In early November, deputies of the Democratic Bloc walked out of one of the revision sessions, rejecting the Ennahda-proposed amendments.  Many NCA members boycotted the assembly.

Last Wednesday, representatives from the national dialogue met with a delegation of the oppositional National Salvation Front parties to again discuss the pending amendments.

Following a 2011 uprising that unseated then-president Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia started the process of writing a new constitution. On 1 June, the Tunisian Constituent Assembly released a final draft constitution after a seven months delay.

‘A power-sharing rivalry’

Observers of the national dialogue believe that deadlock over choosing a prime minister is not the largest reason behind the failure of the talks. Conflict rather strikes at discordant visions of how the transitional period should be run and at the allotted powers of the next government.

“Ennahda wants a caretaker government with limited power. The opposition wants a government with more extensive powers,” senior scholar at the Wilson Center, Marine Ottaway, told Ahram Online.

“Ennahda will resign, but on its own terms,” she continued, with agreement over the constitution and the date of elections set as preconditions for its stepping down.

Ghribi holds a similar view, citing that Ennahda “would not resign without any guarantees and throw the country into the unknown.”

“Ennahda's adopted approach has always been to seek to build as broad a coalition as possible to ensure a smooth transition, which is what we announced even before the elections and regardless of election results,” Ghannouchi asserts. “And this continues to be our approach in the current crisis and the current national dialogue.”

In the opposition, fears have been mounting that the ruling party is about to renege on its commitment to resign. Tunisian youth, however, feel that the opposition has not been doing well. Tunisian activist Meriem Dhaouadi says that the Tunisian opposition is fragmented and acting aimlessly.

“The Tunisian public has grown weary of the political actors in the opposition since they have failed to provide alternatives. The opposition in Tunisia remains elitist and encompasses the old figures who opposed the Ben Ali regime in the past but fell short to inject new blood into its leadership to evolve into a constructive opposition,” she told Ahram Online.

There exists a deep “power-sharing rivalry” between both sides, she asserts.

Dhaouadi believes that political violence will not go away with Ennahda quitting power. The party has been accused of colluding in carrying out assassinations of political figures or being too lenient in dealing with perpetrators, allegations that Ghannouchi calls “baseless” and aimed at “sowing doubts in people's minds about parties in power.”

Parliamentarian and NCA member Mohamed Brahmi was shot dead 25 July by unidentified gunmen outside his home in the exact way in which political opposition member Chokri Belaid lost his life 6 February.

“If Ennahda Party resigns, political violence and societal conflicts will not vanish overnight. The issue is very complex and subtle and won't be settled unless we cultivate a much improved and positive political landscape,” Dhaouadi says.

Short link: