Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Tunisia: Democratic changes (2011 – 2014)

The new constitution was adopted during the plenary session of Sunday
The new constitution was adopted during the plenary session of Sunday, January 26, 2014 / Photo HH[
The Jasmine Revolution began on 17 December 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid, and ended on 14 January 2011, the day President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (b. 1936) fled to Saudi Arabia. On that day, the people suddenly found their voice and a public space to express it. TV and radio stations heard everyone’s grievances, and public places were transformed into large-scale Hyde Park Speakers’ Corners. Executive power was transferred from the president to the prime minister, and civil society became very active and influential, while the army became more visible and the police less arrogant.

First intermediate period (2011)

The exact sequence of events, especially during the first month, remains unclear. Ben Ali’s departure was announced by Mohamed Ghannouchi (b. 1941), the prime minister who declared himself in charge during the interim period. Ghannouchi had been prime minister since 2002 (Ghannouchi I government). Though little known to the public, he had a good reputation, and the economic boom that Tunisia experienced under Ben Ali is attributed largely to his policies. Parliament Speaker Fouad Mebazaa (b. 1933) became the ceremonial president of the republic. Both were leaders of the Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique (RCD), Ben Ali’s political party.

January witnessed mysterious gunfights throughout the country between the military, on one side, and “militias” assisted by “snipers”, on the other. Were these Ben Ali’s forces? Presidential security? Mercenaries sent by Ben Ali or Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi (d. 2011) to counter the revolution? The question remains unanswered, but dozens—civilians, policemen, military—died in the weeks following the official victory of the Jasmine Revolution.

Ghannouchi presented his government on 17 January 2011 (Ghannouchi II government), including historic opponents of the regime he served. Yet key ministries (e.g., foreign affairs, interior, defense) remained in the hands of the RCD, which exacerbated public anger. The Kasbah (I) Movement started then, with a sit-in in front of the prime minister’s office until the RCD was ousted. The Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT) played a role in organizing the movement. Ghannouchi announced a new government on 27 January (Ghannouchi III government).

Rached Ghannouchi (b. 1941), leader of the Islamist Ennahda party and unrelated to the prime minister, returned to Tunisia three days later, after two decades in exile. Hundreds of people welcomed him, which surprised many, as his movement had been considered dead.

Ben Ali’s Parliament was dissolved in early February, and a new chamber (the High Authority for the Achievement of Revolution Objectives, Political Reform, and Democratic Transition; HIRORRPTD) was voted in. But the RCD was still legal, and no election date was set. A second Kasbah (II) Movement began at that time: tens of thousands occupied the streets—led by the UGTT, Ennahda, and the extreme left—calling for Ghannouchi’s resignation, the dissolution of the RCD, and the election of a constituent assembly charged with writing a new constitution. Ghannouchi resigned on 27 February 2011 and was replaced by Beji Caid Essebsi (b. 1926).

Caid Essebsi (the founder and present leader of Nidaa Tounes, “Call of Tunisia”), was minister several times under Bourguiba and speaker of the parliament during the first years of Ben Ali’s rule. He was also a high-ranking official in the RCD. Yet he had been out of the spotlight for years when the revolution occurred. Once appointed, he decided to dissolve the RCD and the upper house of parliament, suspend the constitution, establish an independent electoral body (ISIE), and set the date for the election of a constituent assembly. He also signed Ennahda’s legal agreement, in March 2011.

The new government had to deal with the Libyan crisis, maintaining connections with both Gaddafi and his armed opponents, while facing the influx of a million refugees and the smuggling of weapons. Caid Essebsi managed to contain Algerian, Saudi, and Emirati anger, from rich and powerful countries fearing the Jasmine Revolution and the rise of Islamists. BCE was also able to appease the UGTT and those participating in the Kasbah sit-ins, thus decreasing strikes and protests.

However, Arab Spring–related extremism began in May, when a colonel and his soldiers were killed near the Algerian border. Shortly afterwards, a movie theater was vandalized for showing a movie considered anti- Islam, and the same motive lay behind an attack later that year against Nessma TV’s headquarters, after it broadcast the movie Persepolis. Some observers saw this violence as presaging a coming conflict between the advocates of an Islamist Tunisia and those supporting a secular nation.

The constituent election was, in any case, carried out in a peaceful atmosphere on 23 October 2011. It was the first free and fair election in the country’s history. Ennahda, the majority bloc in the new assembly (with 41 percent of the vote), voted for Mustapha Ben Jaafar (b. 1940), of the social-democratic party Ettakatol, as president of the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), and its other ally, Moncef Marzouki (b. 1945) of the Congrès pour la République (CPR), as president of the republic. The transfer of power from Marzouki to Foued Mebazaa (b. 1933) took place on 13 December 2011.

Second intermediate period (2012-2013)

Ennahda, as the new power in the country, then appointed as prime minister its secretary general Hamadi Jebali (b. 1949), on 24 December 2011. His government was a coalition between Ennahda, the center-left secular CPR and Ettakatol, comprising around fifty ministers (mostly from Ennahda). Some described the large number of Jebali’s ministers as a way to reward his party’s militants, but others   believed it to be a stratagem used by Ennahda to understand the functioning of the state from within, thus giving it better control of the government in the future.

Prime Minister Jebali and President Marzouki clashed several times, as when the government decided to hand over Gaddafi’s last prime minister, Baghdadi Ali Mahmudi (b. 1945), who was under arrest in Tunis in mid-2012, to the Libyan authorities, against the orders of President Marzouki.

Social demands grew during the Jebali period, along with rising commodity prices, and Salafists, protected by Ennahda, grew more vocal, especially under the banner of Ansar al-Sharia. More dangerous, though, was the insurgency that began in the Chaambi Mountains, on the Algerian border, where suspected jihadi Salafists began to plant bombs and kill soldiers. The movement had existed under Ben Ali, but the militants were systematically crushed and their operations limited and rarely heard of (apart from the 2004 synagogue bombing and the 2007 Soliman gun battles). These fundamentalists wanted to change society as a whole and eradicate Western habits, modernity, and secularism. They were, in fact, waging war against their own nation.

The League for the Protection of the Revolution (LPR), a coalition of Islamists, jobless young people, thugs, and others, was created in 2012. This violent group is close to Ennahda and the CPR and has been involved in many attacks on the UGTT, the opposition (including the killing of Nidaa Tounes’s Lotfi Nagdh and the attack on UGTT’s headquarters), civil-society organizations, and other groups.

Relations with Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE were tense under the new regime. The rulers also decided to cut the country’s relations with Baathist Syria, and the first Friends of Syria conference took place in Tunisia in February 2012.

Caid Essebsi founded a secular political party, Nidaa Tounes in June of the same year. Nidaa was to become the main rival of Ennahda, especially after allying, in December 2012, with liberal and centre-left al-Joumhouri and al-Massar in the Union for Tunisia. Twelve extreme left and pan-Arab parties coalesced under the banner of al-Jabha al-Shaabiya (Popular Front), in August 2012.

In September 2012, the American Embassy and the American School in Tunis were attacked by Ansar al-Sharia, under the influence of he Benghazi attacks. This was a wake-up call for Ennahda regarding the Salafist danger.

A National Dialogue was initiated between the opposing parties in 2012, in an attempt to reduce political polarization. It was led alternately by the presidency of the republic and by the UGTT. On 6 February 2013, opposition leader Chokri Belaid was shot to death in front of his house. Hundreds of thousands of people took on the streets, calling on Ennahda to resign, and the opposition members of parliament withdrew from the ANC. On 19 February 2013, Jebali resigned and handed power to his minister of the interior, Ali Laarayedh (b. 1955), Ennahda’s third in command.

The Laarayedh government was half-Ennahda, half-technocratic. Key ministries went to technocrats, and the new prime minister vowed to fight terrorism. But the shuffle also removed Abdelkrim Zbidi (b. 1950), the minister of defense, who had held the post since Ghannouchi II. Zbidi had served as minister under Ben Ali, and maintained good relations with General Rachid Ammar (b. 1947 or 1948), the chief of staff of the armed forces. General Ammar retired four months later, triggering a major change among the high-ranking officers of the army and the police. Some analysts relate this change to the events in Egypt (summer 2013), and many officials speak of a failed coup attempt (of which there has, as yet, been no investigation). The opposition became more suspicious of Ennahda’s goals after this change.

Still, opposition members of parliament returned to the assembly, and the National Dialogue was restored. The jihadi insurgency was intensifying, though, and, on 25 July 2013, opposition member of parliament and leftist leader Mohamed Brahmi was gunned down. His assassination was followed by a bloody attack against the army in the Chaambi Mountains.

Hundreds of thousands were in the streets again, calling for Ennahda to resign and for the Constituent Assembly to be dissolved. A sit-in was begun in front of the ANC, joined by opposition members of parliament who had vacated their seats. The National Dialogue was once again suspended, and the Union for Tunisia was extended to the Salvation Front, including the Popular Front (Belaid and Brahmi’s movement).

As things escalated, Mustapha Ben Jaafar suspended the Constituent Assembly. Ansar al-Sharia was officially declared a terrorist organization. Negotiations were begun, and foreign mediation was welcomed. The United States, France, Germany, and Algeria were particularly active. National Dialogue resumed in the fall, and it was agreed that Ennahda would resign once the constitution was voted on. The ANC reopened, and members of parliament accelerated their work, finally voting on the constitution on 26 January 2014.

The constitution was voted in by a majority of members of parliament. That night’s jubilation and the climate of peace that followed made the idea of a fundamentalist/secularist confrontation obsolete, at least for the time being.

Third intermediate period (2014)

The date of 26 January 2014 is now accepted as the first day of Tunisia’s Second Republic. Endowed with one of the most progressive constitutions in the Arab World the country seems on the right track for democracy. Even though the constituent assembly had a majority of Islamist members, the text they wrote made no mention of Sharia law, had as many references to social freedoms as did the secular constitution of 1959, had a clause prohibiting the accusation of religious blasphemy (takfir), and even mentioned freedom of conscience, alluding tacitly to atheism.

Mehdi Jomaa (b. 1962), Laarayedh’s minister of industry, who was close to Ettakatol but reputedly independent, was tasked with forming a new government, which he presented to the ANC on 29/01/2014. His team comprised many technocrats, but also some ancien régime affiliates and others considered close to Ennahda (Laarayedh’s minister of the interior, for instance, kept his portfolio).

The tasks of this government are to organize the country’s next election and to reduce the population‘s economic and security concerns. Jomaa has found more support among the country’s elite than did earlier governments. He seems to be well received on the international scene. The Algerians, Saudis, and Emiratis became less aggressive when it became clear that Ennahda was resigning. The US secretary of state, John Kerry, visited Tunisia in February, handing Jomaa an invitation to the White House from Barack Obama (b. 1961), and Sergei Lavrov (b. 1950), the Russian foreign minister, followed a month later.