Political courage – and risk – in Tunisia

February 20, 2013

Keeping his promise to the people of Tunisia, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali resigned yesterday after his own party rejected his call for the creation of an apolitical government of technocrats to ease the country’s rising political tensions. My colleague Tarek Amara reported this morning that the ongoing political instability is slowing economic growth in Tunisia just as the country’s economy was showing its first signs of life since the 2011 revolution.

For Jebali personally, his resignation is a gamble. After promising to resign if he could not form a new apolitical government, Jebali did just that on Tuesday. The prime minister’s move was seen by many in Tunisia as “a rare display of accountability by a politician,” according to The New York Times. But it also leaves Jebali without the strong backing of any major political party.

Tensions have soared in Tunisia since a leftist opposition leader, Chokri Belaid, was assassinated two weeks ago. The ruling Islamist party, Ennahda, has rejected complaints of poor governance and failing to crackdown on attacks on liquor stores and art exhibits by hardline Salafists. Instead, it has blamed Tunisian news media, secular elites and elements of the old government for its decreasing popularity.

Analysts say that Islamists in both Tunisia and Egypt have overplayed their electoral victories and underestimated the secular opposition they face. As I wrote last week, the growing divide between secularists and Islamist groups is a reflection of an epic political struggle over the role Islam will play in politics, society and life.

Khalil al-Anani, a scholar of Middle East Studies at Durham University in England, told The New York Times that Islamist governments think they can act as they wish after gaining power.

“They replicate the policies of authoritarian regimes, and underestimate the weight of secular and liberal forces,” Anani said.  They also fail to grasp how the revolutions have changed power structures in the region. “No one can claim the authority of the street in the Arab world,” he said.Abou Yaareb Marzouki, a philosophy professor who is close to some Ennahda officials, said that the party has misjudged the difficulty of ruling the country.“They thought that governing would be easy,” said Marzouki. “And they imagined that through governance, they will reject forced modernism,” he said, referring to westernization that occurred under colonial and authoritarian governments. But he argued that Islamist-led governments in Tunisia and Egypt had moved too far in the opposite direction and were imposing “forced easternization.”

“If Ennahda designates one of its hawks, there will be a conflict with the secular parties,” Labyed said. “At that moment the atmosphere would be very tense and could move to the streets.”

Political analyst Salem Labyed told Reuters that Tunisia is at a crossroads. If Ennahda backs Jebali as an interim leader, it may be easier for them to form a coalition government with secular opposition leaders. If the party chooses a hard-liner, the crisis could worsen.


PHOTO: Tunisia’s Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali speaks as he announces his resignation during a news conference in Tunis, February 19, 2013. Jebali resigned on Tuesday after his attempt to form a government of technocrats and end a political crisis failed. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi


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