Tunisia’s Fragile Democracy after Essebsi

Former Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi (Wikimedia Commons)

by Daniel Brumberg

The passing of President Beji Caid Essebsi leaves a huge political void in Tunisia’s fraught politics. His death comes not only against the backdrop of an escalating economic crisis but also in the wake of an intensifying political struggle at the very heart of Tunisia’s emerging democratic institutions. That Essebsi may have contributed to this crisis was hardly on the minds of millions of Tunisians mourning a leader whose contributions have outweighed his shortcomings.

Having bid a sad farewell to Essebsi, the country must now tackle the simmering  constitutional and political crisis he left behind. While it has many causes, this crisis is partly rooted in a constitution whose often convoluted language provides a poor guide for clearly delineating the powers of, and relations between, the executive and legislative branches. Essebsi’s apparent—and possibly questionable—decision not to enact the parliament’s recent (if controversial) amendments to the electoral law may be just the tip of a larger iceberg, one with which the country’s leaders must now contend as they prepare for presidential elections in mid-September and parliamentary elections in October of this year.

The ripple effects that could flow from Tunisia’s internal crisis could reach far and wide. Indeed, Tunisia’s conflicts could quickly seep into its two immediate neighbors. Islamic State-linked forces in Algeria, which in past years have struck across the frontier, might be emboldened to renew such attacks at the border or in Tunis itself. Given the continuing standoff between democracy protesters and the military, any bid by jihadist forces in Algeria to exploit Tunisia’s strife could harden the Algerian military’s resolve to stay put. As for Libya, its civil war rages on, fed by the dangerous role that Arab Gulf states have played. Tunisia’s leaders, many of whom have accused their rivals of taking funds from outside, could have cause to redouble their efforts to discredit their opponents as a “fifth column” supported by the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia.

The alacrity with which political rivals have hurled such accusations highlights the need for a leader who can offer a vision that transcends positions often cast in mutually exclusive or existential terms. While it is not clear who might assume this great task, the European Union and the United States could help by taking diplomatic and economic steps that demonstrate continued support for Tunisia’s fragile democratic experiment.

The Benefits and Costs of Consensus

Forged in 2015, Tunisia’s current political arragement was based on a mutual agreement according to which both secularly oriented and Islamist leaders promised they would never use the legislature, courts, or police to undermine basic rights. But a government based on an attenuated political cease-fire made it nearly impossible to mobilize a legislative majority in favor of decisive social or political directives. Thus the political stability that consensus-based politics fostered often produced legislative paralysis in ways that weakened Tunisia’s emerging democracy.

This trade-off exacted all kinds of costs, especially in the economic realm. Tunisia’s economic crisis is partly rooted in the efforts of all the parties to avoid imposing reform measures that might antagonize powerful groups such as the business community and the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT). Another casualty has been the rule of law. Not surprisingly, legislative battles over proposed laws that touch on the clashing interests of secular and Islamist parties have ended in stalemate. When Nidaa Tounes, Essebsi’s political party, and its offshoots and the Islamist Ennahda Party fail to reach an accord on reforming inheritance laws—as has been the case over the last few months —neither side loses but, also, neither wins. Thus, consensus-based politics contains as well as sustains basic conflicts in ways that weaken the very credibility of the overall political system.

One way of breaking such costly logjams would be to create the Supreme Constitutional Court, a body whose establishment is mandated by the constitution. But leaders on both sides of the Islamist/secular divide have not been willing to step away from their efforts to manipulate to their advantage the cumbersome procedures for appointing the court, which are laid out in a special “organic law.” Repeated efforts to vote on the last few members of this court failed in the two months preceding Essebsi’s death, thus underscoring how hard it is for the political elite to let go of a power-sharing lifeboat that has run into rough seas.

The Rickety Power-Sharing Lifeboat Survives

That this rickety ship of state continued to sail owed much to its valiant, if flawed, captain: President Essebsi. Whatever his shortcomings, he was able to pose as a kind of third-party mediator who could speak for national interests. If this image of him was somewhat mythical, it provided a convenient fiction on which all parties could lean, so long as Essebsi maintained the pretense of impartiality. However, in late 2018 and into 2019, his reputation as a national leader suffered in large measure because Essebsi could not rise above a gathering tide of unhappiness with the power-sharing system within the ranks of all political parties.

Indeed, that system appeared to be in serious trouble in October 2018, when Essebsi declared in rather grandiose language that “relations between Beji Caid Essebsi and Ennahda have been severed at Ennahda’s request…There is no longer a consensus between me and them.” What Essebsi failed to mention was that his decision was prompted in part by a power struggle that he himself had helped to ignite when he backed the effort of his son, Hafedh, to challenge Nidaa Tounes’s executive director, Mohsen Marzouk. The latter had offended both father and son by backing Prime Minister Youssef Chahed. A former Nidaa Tounes member, Chahed had advanced market reforms while pursuing a “war on corruption,” thus antagonizing big business interests on the right and the UGTT on the left. Increasingly isolated, Chahed apparently reached out to Ennahda MPs, deflecting Hafedh’s efforts to compel his resignation.

Ennahda’s backing for Hafedh’s political rival seems to have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Determined to punish Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi for refusing to back a vote of no confidence against a prime minister whose political ambitions many believe include a bid for the presidency, Essebsi declared an end to the uneasy marriage with Ennahda.

Essebsi’s actions telegraphed a message of partisanship that clashed with his image as a national leader. Moreover, by sparking defections from Nidaa Tounes, his campaign against Chahed not only ensured that Ennahda gained the largest plurality of seats in the parliament, but it also gave Ennahda leaders cause to argue that in contrast to Nidaa Tounes and its father and son duo, Ennahda was dedicated to the lofty principle of national unity and stability. Whatever the self-serving nature of such claims, the fact is that Chahed’s survival hinged on a new alliance between secular parties and Islamist forces and thus, by implication, on sustaining a power-sharing arrangement that survived despite Essebsi’s efforts to bury it—and despite the fact that by Spring 2019, many MPs (and constitutional experts) had concluded that what Tunisia needs first and foremost is a parliament that commands a real and coherent majority.

Inviting a Constitutional Crisis

Whether the Fall 2019 parliamentary elections will produce such a majority remains to be seen. Even if they do (which is far from obvious), the very prospect of such an outcome worries the leaders of the secular and Islamist camps because despite their unhappiness with the costs of power sharing, they still fear that their rivals would use any electoral majority to impose legislation that their respective bases reject. Such fears have vastly increased the stakes as Tunisia’s divided political elites prepare for what they hope (or worry) will be a decisive election.

That said, it is far from clear that this elite’s primary concerns—and the battles they have been waging—are relevant to the wider populace. Indeed, many average Tunisians view the above struggles as a kind of remote theater whose dramas have no positive impact on their efforts to survive in an economy plagued by corruption and bureaucratic immobilism. This is especially true in the hinterlands, where poverty and mass unemployment prevail. The result is a lethal mix of desperation, social marginalization, and apathy toward the formal political system whose irrelevance is feeding a growing nostalgia for the “old days” of President Zine El-Abidine ben Ali.

These feelings of anger and resentment have opened the door to a Tunisian-style populism that echoes wider trends in the global arena. At the vanguard of this movement is Nabil Karoui, a media mogul and millionaire whose TV station, Nessma, has millions of viewers. Deploying a vast fleet of trucks and medical clinics under the umbrella of a private foundation that he named after his late son Khalil, who died in a traffic accident, Karoui managed to galvanize support among Tunisia’s rural communities. He is backed by slickly made videos that tug at the heartstrings and is buoyed by polls showing that he and his “Karoui Party” command a lead of 29.8 percent in support, more than any other potential candidate (with Ennahda coming in second with 16.8 percent). In late May 2019, Karoui declared his intention to run for the presidency and to create his own political party as well.

Karoui’s campaign has upended Tunisian politics. Ennahda leaders resent his successful efforts to mobilize support in a vast rural constituency that was widely seen as key for the Islamists. Moreover, if Karoui should win the election or his party secures a major number of seats in the parliament, the new president might be able to accomplish what no other leader has thus far done: forge a working majority in parliament. While Ennahda worries that such a majority might shut them out of any new government, the fears of secular leaders echo those of Ghannouchi and his allies. The leaders of Nidaa Tounes and its splinter parties cannot preclude the possibility that Karoui would try to isolate his secular rivals by forging an alliance with Ennahda. Although Karoui’s big business background—and the secular orientation of Nessma—would seem to preclude such an alliance, the most important threat facing all of the political parties is the tremendous uncertainty that Karoui’s rise has brought to the political arena.

As a result of similar fears, in mid-June the parliament voted to amend the standing electoral law. This law bans would-be candidates who have used social foundations to secure public support for their candidacy—and/or who have taken foreign funds to back them—from running for president. Supporters of the law insist that it was not drafted in order to take aim at any one candidate. Critics, including leading constitutional lawyers (of which there are many in Tunisia), hold that the amended law could create a dangerous precedent by which any party or combination of parties might again manipulate the law to serve their narrow political agendas. While recognizing the potential threat that Karoui poses to consolidating Tunisia’s emerging democracy, they argue that the sudden amending of the electoral code undermines the rule of law.

Absent a Supreme Constitutional Court that could use its ultimate authority to offer a decisive judgment regarding the constitutionality of the amendments, the fate of an amended electoral code rested in the hands of President Essebsi. For certain reasons (including his deteriorating health) it seems that Essebsi failed to follow the procedures set out in Article 81 for enacting or vetoing legislation. If the convoluted language of Article 81 was  not helpful, by not following its procedures Essebsi gave his opponents in both the secular and Islamist parties good cause to question the legitimacy of his actions.

That they did so a week before he passed away underscored a deeper crisis, one rooted in the failure of the 2014 constitution to clearly delineate lines of authority and, thus, relations between the executive and the legislature. As one scholar notes, the constitution’s vague language ensures that when the executive and the legislature clash, the president’s personal temperament must assume an outsize role in managing such disputes. Indeed, precisely because the controversy surrounding Essebsi’s actions highlighted the pivotal role that his successor will play in any new government, the race for the presidency has now assumed an existential quality, with each side maneuvering to win that prized office—or at least to be in a position to form a close alliance with whoever secures the presidency.

High Stakes in a New Political Contest

Such high stakes have apparently prompted a fundamental shift in Ennahda’s approach to the political arena. Under the umbrella of the power sharing system that emerged in 2015, Ghannouchi had gone out of his way to ensure that he gave his secular rivals no excuse for turning on his party. His uneasy partnership with Essebsi telegraphed his basic calculation that Ennahda was better off living with a secularly oriented ancien regime leader rather than seeking executive power through the presidency or the office of prime minister. But circumstances have changed in ways that have encouraged him to rethink this basic strategy. The current challenges include rising opposition from within his own party from a new generation of leaders, some of whom believe that Ennahda had gained little from its entente with Essebsi and his fractious secular allies.

Beyond these considerations, the biggest factor that seemed to have prompted Ghannouchi’s rethinking is the potential threat unleashed by Karoui’s campaign. That threat has not been totally eliminated by the charges of money laundering recently brought against Karoui, who has not backed down from what he deems the fight of his life. Facing the prospect that Karoui might secure the presidency and, worse, forge an alliance with secular parties, Ghannouchi has made a move he long eschewed: he has announced his intention to run for parliament, thus opening up the possibility that he might vie for the position of prime minister. This prospect has galvanized political veterans such as Moncef Marzouki who, along with other like-minded allies, is struggling to unite the secular camp behind the drive to defeat Ennahda. Thus, to the evident dismay of many Tunisians—whose primary concern is simply making a living—identity battles now define the very core of the upcoming elections.

These rising electoral stakes have also prompted increased scrutiny of possible foreign funding for Tunisia’s contending parties and leaders. Ennahda’s leaders are deeply concerned about this issue. Whether there is clear evidence to support their worries or not, they clearly believe that money from the UAE and Saudi Arabia—as well as political (and perhaps financial) support from France—is pouring in, thus giving an unfair advantage to their secular rivals. Facing an anti-Islamist regional alliance headed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia and supported by the Trump White House, Ennahda’s leaders sense that they are going into an electoral campaign that is stacked against them. These fears are magnifying the existential angst that many leaders are bringing to the electoral arena. Indeed, some secular leaders are as quick to accuse Qatar of trying to buy support in Tunisia as Islamist leaders are keen to warn of UAE or Saudi funding.

Under these polarizing conditions, what is needed is a Tunisian leader who has the experience, integrity, and trust to rise above the political fray. Beyond the region, the United States and the European Union could also play a positive role. The offer to observe the electoral process is a start; but what is also needed is a very public commitment from Washington and European capitals to provide significant economic assistance in a manner that supports both economic reform and social stability. It is vital to signal to Tunisia’s neighbors—and to the wider Middle East—that the region’s very security requires sustaining Tunisia’s quest to consolidate its fragile democracy.

Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Daniel and read his publications click here. Republished, with permission, from the Arab Center.

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  1. Tunisia has a minor strategical interest for the USA except that it is one the last bases of a Moslem Brotherhood group in the region that threatens its neighbours especially Libya and Egypt
    The Annhada follows the Moslem Brotherhood ideology. It is supported financially by Turkey and Qatar. The secular group is supported by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and the West. Therefore Tunisia like Syria is the midst of a struggle of two visions of a Islamic republic.
    Contrary to Syria, Tunisia does not have any strong alliances to defend itself. It has avoided the violence that destroyed Syria in 2011 but it may not be able to avoid it now, especially with the chaos that reign in its closest neighbor, Libya.
    That is why this country will probably remain unstable for more decades, whoever the leader is and may turn out to become a haven for Islamic extremists fleeing Syria and Libya.

  2. These phony, superficial and verbose “experts” on the Arab world, reckless opportunists and profiteers on the democracy promotion / regime change gravy train, should mind their own business, and leave Tunisia alone!! Tunisians certainly don’t need their bogus advice, and get the hell out of Tunisia, there is nothing for them there.

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