Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Tunisia Facing Political Crisis Nearly Three Years After National Uprising

Tunisia Facing Political Crisis Nearly Three Years After National Uprising

Negotiations begin to establish new government

By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire

Tensions are escalating in the North African state of Tunisia as the ruling Ennahda Party has conceded the need to form a new government through general elections. The moderate Islamic-oriented party has dominated Tunisian politics since the first elections were held in the aftermath of the overthrow of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.

At present the Islamic political forces are in a major struggle with the more secular and leftist parties such as the Popular Front who have accused the government of creating an atmosphere that led to the assassination of two opposition leaders earlier in the year. Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi were killed by gunmen in the capital of Tunis.

Prime Minister Ali Lerayedh has blamed the Ansar al-Sharia group for the killings of the two leftist politicians. In recent months armed clashes between members of Ansar al-Sharia and the security forces have resulted in dozens of deaths of police officers, soldiers, armed combatants and civilians.

In a suburb of the capital of Tunis on October 26, a shooting left one person dead who police claimed was an Islamic militant. The shooting prompted the closing of a nearby college under the threat of possible unrest.

Although the Ennahda Party says that it will dissolve the administrative government amid a deadlock in the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), a recent interview with chairman Ranchid Gannouchi indicated that he is not in favor of handing over power pending a nationwide poll until a new constitution is completed. Such a position if it is enacted by the ruling party could prompt a new round of mass demonstrations and strikes.

“[Tunisia’s] situation can no longer bear the prolonging of finishing the constitution. The cabinet and the deputies must fulfill their promises,” Ghannouchi told the Al Wataniya 1 channel. Also the Ennahda party leader defended Muslim Salafists in the same interview. (Al-Arabiya, October 28)

“Salafists are Tunisia’s sons just like communists and liberals are. We must not [launch] a war against this group and we must not eliminate it from society,” Ghannouchi said, adding that he rejected resorting to violence as a means to impose one’s opinions. “The current phase is not one of struggle or mobilization. The ship must carry all Tunisians, whether Islamists or not, to safety.” (Al-Arabiya, October 28)

Opposition parties are concerned that Ennahda will in actuality turn over power to a caretaker government. Prime Minister Larayedh was quoted as saying “The government is eager and committed to stand down within the timeframes set by the roadmap but on condition that all its elements are completed in the specified order.”

Negotiations Begin With Trade Unions As Mediators

On October 28 over twenty political parties began negotiations for the establishment of a new government. By the end of the first week of talks, a new prime minister is slated to be appointed.

The National Constituent Assembly, which was established to draft a post-Ben Ali constitution in November 2011, is scheduled to complete this project which will be later adopted or rejected by the electorate. The new prime minister is tasked with developing another cabinet to continue governmental operations pending future elections.

One political figure in the legislative chambers told Reuters on October 25 at the beginning of the crisis talks, "This is the end of the crisis. The assembly members should be able to return tomorrow or Monday to finish their work on the constitution," said Nejib Chebbi, an opposition leader. (Reuters, October 25)

Yet with the escalation of armed actions in the central and northern regions of the country and the lack of trust among the various contending political forces could easily derail negotiations. Even though the moderate Islamic political parties have lost some support among the people, it will remain to be seen if the left and liberal organization can unite under a program that can win a majority of Tunisians in the upcoming elections.

The Tunisian General Labor Unions (UGTT), the largest trade union federation in the country, has been designated as mediators between the parties. Such a strategic role could further empower the worker’s organization which has 517,000 members and was founded in 1946.

During the uprising against the former government of President Ben Ali, the UGTT played an important role. Since the fall of Ben Ali the unions in Tunisia have staged several general strikes and mass demonstrations.

The role of the Tunisian military in the crisis appears to be quite different than that in neighboring Egypt where a coup was carried out against the Muslim Brotherhood-allied Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) on July 3. So far the army in Tunisia has not given any strong indications that it is interested in playing a more prominent role in national politics.

Nonetheless, if the armed clashes between Ansar al-Sharia and the security forces escalate the situation may change. The trade unions, youth and intellectuals can play a decisive role in this current phase of the struggle by advancing a program that moves Tunisia away from its alliances with France and the United States.

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